Raymond Aron and His Dialogues in an Age of Ideologies

by Nathan Orlando (Author)
©2023 Monographs XIV, 338 Pages


Raymond Aron and His Dialogues in an Age of Ideologies examines the thought and rhetoric of one of the most interesting yet underappreciated thinkers of the twentieth century. This book investigates Raymond Aron’s conversations on politics during the Cold War with well-known contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Hayek, and Charles de Gaulle. Through these dialogues on the subjects of Marxism, freedom, and nationalism, we see the prudence of Aron’s politics of understanding as well as the emphasis he places on and virtue he demonstrates in public discourse. Aron shows us not only how to think politically but also how to engage in constructive public debate. He stands as a model for us to emulate in our own age of ideologies.
"In this lucid, thoughtful and elegantly written work, Nathan Orlando highlights the toughminded moderation and dialogic wisdom of the great twentieth century French political thinker Raymond Aron. Whether responding to Jean-Paul Sartre’s incoherent efforts to merge existentialism and Marxism, authenticity and terror, or Friedrich Hayek’s thoughtful and humane, if too doctrinaire, defense of the ‘constitution of liberty,’ Aron embodied high prudence at work in the great drama of the twentieth century. And in his qualified admiration for the person and statecraft of Charles de Gaulle, Aron admirably demonstrated how moderation and political responsibility can and should fit together. Nathan Orlando is to be commended for bringing Aron’s model of humane and balanced political judgment to life once again."
—Daniel J. Mahoney, Professor Emeritus at Assumption University and Author of The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron
"In an era marked by ideological fanaticism and intellectual folly, Raymond Aron exemplified political wisdom—the ancient virtue of prudence. Nathan Orlando’s important book—itself filled with prudential judgment—exhibits mastery of Aron’s vast body of work, using the French thinker’s dialogues with Friedrich Hayek, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Charles de Gaulle as a way of illumining fundamental questions of political life. Orlando’s study provides an ideal introduction to Aron’s thought."
—Brian C. Anderson, Editor of City Journal and Author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political and other books
"In Raymond Aron and His Dialogues in an Age of Ideologies, Nathan Orlando draws an original and compelling sketch of how the philosophical became the personal in the life and work of Raymond Aron. More specifically, Orlando puts flesh and bones on Aron’s concept of prudence and illustrates the ways in which prudence was a lodestar in Aron’s political and personal life, allowing him to navigate not only current events but the challenging personalities of friends and critics such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Hayek, and Charles de Gaulle. Raymond Aron and His Dialogues is a heroic accomplishment and a wonderful addition to the burgeoning literature on Raymond Aron."
—Reed Davis, Professor Emeritus at Seattle Pacific University and Author of A Politics of Understanding: The International Thought of Raymond Aron

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Introduction
  • A Theorist without a Theory
  • The Aronian Paradigm
  • Philosopher, Soldier, Journalist, Sociologist, Professor: Committed Observer
  • Two Crises
  • Chapters
  • 2 Of Brothers and Enemies: Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre
  • The Friendships of Youth
  • A Wind from the East
  • History is Again on the Move
  • A Politics of Reason and a Politics of Understanding: Themes of Politics
  • The Importance of Dialogue, or How to Talk with People with Whom You Disagree: Themes of Rhetoric
  • 3 Marxism and the Existentialist: The Critique of Dialectical Reason in Dialogue
  • Reconciling Kierkegaard and Hegel
  • The Opium of the Intellectual
  • The Continuing Search for a Method
  • When Dialogues End
  • 4 In Defense of the Decadent West: Raymond Aron and Friedrich A. Hayek
  • The Heirs of Tocqueville
  • Dinner in London
  • Comrades in the Battle of Ideas
  • In Defense of Freedom: Themes of Politics
  • The Case for Freedom: Themes of Rhetoric
  • 5 The Liberal Definition of Freedom
  • Constituting Freedom
  • Freedom Unbound
  • A Government of Men
  • The Continuing Conversation
  • 6 Imperial Republic at the Crossroads: Raymond Aron, Charles de Gaulle, and Post-War French Nationalism
  • Grandeur and the Nation
  • Not a Battle but a Campaign: Pre-1958
  • Algeria and the Return
  • Vive la France: Themes of Politics
  • Ex Officio: Themes of Rhetoric
  • 7 Nationalism: A Civil Religion put to the Test
  • A Question of Loyalty
  • Of Press Conferences and Political Theater
  • The Contemporary Political Community
  • Nationalism Reconsidered
  • 8 Conclusion: The Aronian School
  • Index

←x | xi→


As a reader of books, I never understood the need for a lengthy list of acknowledgments. Now I understand only too well. I have been blessed to find unrelenting encouragement and support at all stages of this project and have compiled debts that can never be discharged, nor will I be able to even mention all those to whom I am grateful here. But I can at least acknowledge a few by name.

To my students across three institutions, I am grateful for your diligence and curiosity. Your enthusiasm to pursue the truth (and patience with your teacher’s incessant prattling about French political thought) inspires me to keep pushing forward in my own intellectual journey. Thank you especially to Ted Koval, Alejandro Calderon, and Luke Westerman for reading chapters.

To my friends and colleagues at Benedictine College, thank you all for your outpouring of encouragement as I have wrestled with the final stages of this project. In particular, Susan Traffas, John Traffas, Steve Mirarchi, and Anthony Crifasi have constantly been of great help. I could not have asked for a warmer welcome or a better landing spot than here in Atchison, Kansas.

Prior to my present institution, I was blessed to be a part of Saint Vincent College. To my friends Brad Watson, Jason Jividen, Jerome Foss, Mary Beth McConahey, Gary Quinlivan, Justin Petrovich, Zack Davis, and many more besides, thank you. In Latrobe, Pennsylvania I found a nameplate waiting for me ←xi | xii→on my office door engraved “Dr. Nathan Orlando” before I had earned the title. This was but the first taste of the unbounded faith that they had in me and assistance they provided for me. I can only hope that the present project goes some way toward rewarding that trust. If not, maybe the next one will. My thanks as well to T. William Boxx and the Philip M. McKenna Foundation, the Center for Political and Economic Thought, the McKenna School, and Saint Vincent College.

A version of Chapters 2 and 3 was first published in the Political Science Reviewer as “Surpassing the Unsurpassable: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reinterpretation of Marxism”. I am grateful to Richard Avramenko and the editorial team for their kind permission to republish this material.

Some of the documents herein sourced come from Professor Aron’s personal papers, housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Thank you to the staff there, to Aron’s daughter Dominique Schnapper for granting me access to her father’s materials, and to Terence Marshall for making the connection and a wonderful lunch.

I would like to thank also Aurelian Craiutu, Bryan-Paul Frost, Reed Davis, and especially Daniel J. Mahoney, Aron experts all. These scholars have made this book possible both by paving the way with their own work and by answering my numerous questions. Mahoney in particular was kind enough to read through a draft of the work and offer incredibly helpful feedback.

To my professors and colleagues at Baylor University, thank you for your unyielding support through coursework and thereafter. No small part of this work was devised in their fine company, most often at the Dancing Bear. In particular, I would like to thank my committee members Peter Campbell, Zachary Wingerd, and David Nichols (and Mary Nichols) for their mentoring, feedback, and especially their friendship (to say nothing of their patience). In addition, invaluable conversations with friends including Clint Condra, Jason Lund, Elizabeth Goyette, and Elizabeth Amato as well as William Cooney come to mind, but I have left out many more beyond. How blessed I was to find myself in such fine company, even if only for a while.

To my friends, my family, my brother C.J. Orlando, my grandmother Francis Orlando, and especially my parents James and Patricia Orlando who have put up with my obnoxious hours and never ceased to support me, I cannot thank you enough for your patience, encouragement, and love since I began this bizarre academic odyssey a decade ago. It has made all the difference.

And to my mentor and friend W. David Clinton, who, like Professor Aron, eschews glory in favor of drudgery by walking the thankless path of the maintainer ←xii | xiii→and preventer, whose students walk away illuminated without ever glimpsing the subtle hand deftly guiding them, whose many sacrifices offered not just willingly but gladly have made possible not just this project but its author, thank you. You have chosen the harder path. Like Professor Aron, you have kept the Western tradition burning brightly. And we, your students, will do our best to thank you in some small way by tending the flame well.

←xiv | 1→



A Theorist without a Theory

What is a theory of politics and political life? Or a theory more broadly? To some, it is—or ought to be—comparable to a scientific theory: holistic and operational, like the theory of gravity. This type of theory coordinates constellations of data points, mechanisms, and the causal relations which can be used not only to explain phenomena but also to predict future happenings. To others, theory means “contemplative knowledge, drawn from ideas or from the basic order of the world… the equivalent of philosophy…. The less practical a study is… the less it suggests or permits the handling of its object, the more theoretical it is.”1 Embarrassed by the seeming-flimsiness of their theories by comparison with those of economists or, better still, those of physicists and other natural scientists, political scientists made their choice some time ago. In the contemporary study of politics, the more precisely a theory can dictate human behavior in advance, the better. Further, the proliferation of such operational theories is seen as a sign of the field’s coming of age. Yet, “[t]his desire for progress has the unfortunate effect of making it seem more important to do than to know what one is doing.”2

The subsequent shame of political scientists as their theories fall short of accurately predicting events does not stem from any lack of effort.3 Take, for ←1 | 2→instance, the subdiscipline of international relations and the legions of scholars who attempt to capture it with precision. Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics (1999) argues that, since international politics consists of “ideas all the way down,” we have but to will peace, and it will unfold before us.4 No material obstacles can stand against us. Wendt outlines the beliefs and behaviors we must adopt in order to resolve the problems of international politics once and for all. Approaching the same goal of comprehensive, operational knowledge via a different road, Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979) disposes of the subject in roughly half the pages, explaining that mysteries of international politics result, essentially, from ignorance of game theory. Knowledge of the system would not necessarily dispel all the problems of international life, just as knowledge of economics does not resolve scarcity, but it would reduce them to procedural dilemmas. Understanding the structure of the system will help us understand what the other state should do and what we should do, minimizing the uncertainty of the equation. Isaiah Berlin would call both Wendt and Waltz hedgehogs: they know one big thing and relate everything to that one big thing.5 And, certainly, they are by no means alone in this quest.

Yet, since Waltz and Wendt published their comprehensive theories, the problems of the relations between states have not disappeared. Since these theories debuted, our problems have become, if anything, more complicated rather than less. Civil wars, genocides, and authoritarian regimes refuse to fade away, as though to mock Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. Planes have flown into skyscrapers. Viruses have ground international travel and commerce to a halt. Millions of migrants shuffle about the globe, prompting some to herald the end of nation-states as such and others to dust off the slogans of nationalism. Empires with colonial holdings have all but vanished, leaving in their wake scores of independent, developing nations or else territories defined by their borders and the absence of rule within those boundaries. Some of the last vestiges of communism, such as Venezuela, continue to collapse under their own weight while others, such as the People’s Republic of China, reinvent themselves. Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the Western world seems to slink continually toward central planning itself. In domestic politics, Americans seem more united in their hatred for each other than any common vision of political life. They are far from alone in this drift. The realm of the political continues to recede toward the horizon.

More often than not, what scholars propose as theories of politics transgress that unseen threshold into the realm of ideology. With the sobriety induced by the carnage of the twentieth century and the advent of a universal history, many ←2 | 3→recognize how incalculably costly an error in international life could become. Like Waltz and Wendt, they seek to divine some new way of viewing the world that would avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Others, with boundless confidence in their own wisdom and disregard of the stakes, proclaim the rallying cry of the madman: but this time will be different! Beckoned by the siren song of comprehensive knowledge, of definitively solving the challenges of the field, many political scientists of both mindsets dream of a formula such that political action could become simply a matter of inputting the relevant variables into the transhistorical, immaculate equation and thereby obviating the need for fallible human judgment. Theory thus becomes ideology.6 Ideology illuminates the (unseen) impediments to perfection and promises that the removal of these will mark the dawn of an age of rest from the tiresome drama of political life, or at least the reduction of this drama into an orderly process. With the right procedure and materials, the ideologist believes all political problems can be resolved flawlessly and with finality. But “[r]eality is always more conservative than ideology,” and “[t]here are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”7 The history of the twentieth century should serve as an all too tragic reminder of the dangers of pressing any comprehensive solution too far or of believing that we can simply substitute one such doctrine for another.

But this caution does not mean that we should discard theory. On the contrary, theory plays an essential role in our understanding the world, whether we realize it or not. Theory prevents us from approaching each situation de novo. We do not need to drop this particular rock off of this particular precipice to have some general idea of what follows. To deny the possibility and application of theory categorically is to deny the possibility of learning, of extrapolating from both success and failure in order to apply understanding of the past to present and future problems. Instead, the viability of a theory is completely dependent upon “what we expect of a theory,” what we expect it to show us and to do.8 To acknowledge the shortcomings of comprehensive theories of politics, operational in the scientific sense, is not necessarily to despair of knowing anything about anything. Instead, “[i]t is not always ignorance but sometimes the very nature of the subject matter that determines the limits of a theory.”9 Unlike chemistry or physics, there are no scientific laws that govern the actions of politics.10 The cardinal virtue of the scientific method, repeatability, is not available to the theorist of political life.11 Moreover, the objects of chemistry and physics cannot deviate from their mechanical functions. Element A does not choose whether or not to react to Element B. The rock dropped over the precipice does not choose whether or even at what speed to fall. The nation-state poised to receive a blow from its ←3 | 4→neighbor or the citizen upon whom an unjust law is imposed, however, does have choices to make, even if not enviable ones.12 Furthermore, unlike the inert object, political actors can learn from the past and change course accordingly. They must do so. Each situation in political life is unique. But each situation also connects to others in certain respects that can be illuminated by theory.

Going one step further, political communities too are able to learn and to choose precisely because they do not exist, at least not as such. States are corporate subjects, amalgamated out of the elements that compose them: individual human beings capable of reason. These basic elements are the building blocks of political life and must be understood in order to comprehend the character and actions of the states that they comprise as well as the state system as a whole. A state has no free will because a state has no will. Those human beings who comprise the state, policy-makers as well as civilians, do. To understand political communities, we must first understand the men and women who compose them. Yet we will quickly discover a rather daunting obstacle. At the time of publication, nearly eight billion human beings inhabit this planet, making an unquantifiable number of decisions every day. An exhaustive study of each and every one far surpasses the ability of the student of politics. While the ideologist has made the study of political life too simple, those who search for a comprehensive understanding of political man by examining each and every component of political life have embarked upon a futile quest.

Nevertheless, our choice is not between speaking only in generalities or in particulars, nor between saying everything and saying nothing. As in the study of a series of rocks or a series of paintings, no two human beings are the same. Pretending otherwise leads us astray from what it means to be human. In fact, the members of a series of human beings differ much more radically from each other than do the constituent members of a series of rocks or paintings because at each moment of the study—and beyond—the individual human being can alter himself, at least within a certain horizon of possibilities. By contrast, a group of rocks will remain as arranged, impelled to stay at rest or fall from the desk only from without. The rock does not strive, let alone construct goals toward which it may strive. The human being, each human being individually, does.13 What Wendt and Waltz may achieve in breadth of scope and succinct summation comes at the expense of depth and accuracy. Our investigation will approach the subject from the opposite direction. At the same time, rather than attempting to comprehend nearly two hundred states and eight billion odd human beings—some of them extremely so—in one fell swoop, we will try to comprehend one person. From him, perhaps we can understand three more as well as a handful of events, ←4 | 5→milieus, and states. From these, perhaps we can learn a different type of theory of politics.

Our theory begins with one man living amidst troubled times. Raymond Aron, born in France in 1905, lived in a century of political, industrial, and social upheavals, of guerrilla wars, world wars, and cold wars. He was born into a time of decline: the decline of France’s globe-spanning Empire, of Europe’s unchallenged dominance in the international realm, of the French intelligentsia’s ability to communicate (civilly and intelligently) among itself. To live amidst decline requires of the committed a tabling of pride in favor of a frank confrontation with new conditions. To live amidst decline requires a renewed appraisal of what can be discarded and what must be retained. To live amidst decline requires “meditation” of the kind that left us the works of Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau.14 To understand that decline requires a focus on the men and women who lived it: how they navigated its shifting landscape, how they understood it, and how it changed them. Just as Aron begins his theory of international politics by designating the two individuals to whom we ought devote our attention—“the diplomat and the soldier,” so we first turn our attention toward a particular, individual actor, this committed observer.15 We must understand the part so as to understand the whole.

Aron subtitles his massive tome Peace and War (Paix et Guerre entre les nations, 1962) “A Theory of International Relations,” an assertion that earned him no small amount of derision. In the age of science and industry, of mass and speed, one seeks a theory broad in application yet concise in explication; what variable, when isolated and manipulated, will affect the milieu so as to yield the desired outcome?16 We do not have the time or the patience for more. The one behind the many, which the presocratic philosophers sought, is actually element-based molecules, behind which stand atoms, charged particles, hadrons, quarks, and perhaps even smaller components. The health of the economy comes down to the adjustment of rates of employment in times of crisis, at least according to John Maynard Keynes. For Wendt it is ideas that determine international life, the manipulation of which he explains over the course of 400 pages.17 Waltz posits that the condition of self-help circumscribed by the milieu of anarchy—and imperfect information—explains international conflict; he dispenses a comprehensive theory of international politics in 250 pages. By contrast, Aron’s 800-page “Theory of International Relations” comes to the modest (if unsatisfying) conclusion: there is no one variable that controls the system.18 A theory of international relations that accepts this limitation “is not operational and will perhaps never be so” since “it permits neither prediction nor manipulation… at least not until ←5 | 6→the time when politics per se… will have disappeared.”19 Instead, Aron guides his readers in Peace and War and the rest of his corpus through the multiplicity of elements, considerations, and questions of the topic. Like “the Philosopher of War” Carl von Clausewitz, Aron offers his reader something closer to a theory about the limits of theory. In military engagements as in life, the best plan always encounters what Clausewitz calls “friction.” Only by not asking too much of a single factor and instead leaving room for the unexpected and unforeseeable can a strategist—or a theorist—hope to construct an accurate image of the world and actions to come.20 Aron’s conclusions are qualified rather than comprehensive. In this regard, Isaiah Berlin might associate Aron more with the fox than the hedgehog in that he “pursue[s] many ends… without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”21

As a result, Peace and War, much like Aron’s other works, arrives at modest conclusions, perhaps overly modest according to his critics.22 Theorist Hans Morgenthau “polite[ly] dismiss[es] the book as ‘a contribution to the advancement of theoretical knowledge.’”23 Waltz lumps Aron with his own critics, objecting:

they, like Aron, confuse difficulties in testing and applying theory with the problem of constructing one. Critics of neorealist theory fail to understand that a theory is not a statement about everything that is important in international-political life, but rather a necessarily slender explanatory construct. Adding elements of practical importance would carry us back from a neorealist theory to a realist approach. The rich variety and wondrous complexity of international life would be reclaimed at the price of extinguishing theory.24

For Waltz, then, concision is the distinguishing virtue of theory, seemingly over and above fidelity to actual conditions and actors. While the length and complexity of Aron’s investigation no doubt deters the dabbler from opening the tome and while it would be perverse to deny that something useful could be said in fewer pages, the theoretical modesty of Aron’s writing should give us pause. What if concise, abstract theories offer us the illusion and accompanying confidence of understanding without understanding itself? What if international life, let alone political life, cannot be summarized succinctly? Are we then left in a perpetual innocence, unable to bring to bear any past deductions on present problems? Is theory, then, an all-or-nothing endeavor? Or what if, instead, the hedgehog could make peace with the fox?

←6 | 7→

Aron offers the scholar, the practitioner, and the citizen not a set of ready-made solutions to all the problems of political life but a path to find solutions to a given dilemma. By studying Peace and War as well as his other works, Aron’s reader undertakes an apprenticeship in the navigation of political topography precisely because Aron never loses track of the general while exploring the particular. He offers his reader not only specific maps with trails well-marked—the Hungary-Suez fiasco (1956), the Algerian Crisis (1954–1962), the demise of the Fourth Republic (1958), etc.—but also, by means of these case studies, training in how to read the terrain of similar situations, to understand the political animals they will encounter, to notice the signals of changing conditions. In doing so, Aron strikes a careful balance. To invest too much weight in general principles risks overlooking the particularity of a situation. To focus too much on the particulars risks reducing the human experience to philosophical nominalism, a permanent, psychological tabula rasa. Becoming lost in generalities denies the importance of specific exigencies. Becoming lost in the particulars sacrifices context so that we answer each problem in a way that denies broader concepts. By intertwining the study of universal principles with that of particular situations and the particular dimensions of those particular situations, by continually shuttling back and forth between the two, by framing political choices not as pre-determined but as open questions, Aron’s apprentices do not receive the universal decoder lens but a method by which to discover in any given situation the best, or least bad, available option.25 Aron shows us how to reconcile the fox with the hedgehog in an imperfect world.

Aron’s thought is not a ready-made, concordant body of works designed to be used as an encyclopedia of political fixes. He does not show us how to solve all problems for all time. But, with astounding candor and clarity, he does show us how he and his interlocutors addressed the particular problems of their time. By thinking with him, we undertake an apprenticeship in how to approach those of our time. In order to think with him, the questions he faced must become once more open dilemmas. The interlocutors he engaged must become again rational beings engaged in a contest yet to be decided. Aron himself must become a model for us so that we can ask ourselves what we would do in his place before then examining the decisions he made.

←7 | 8→

The Aronian Paradigm

Aron opens his defense of Peace and War against the charge of having embodied the worst sort of academic esotericism with the observation: “Few words are used as often by economists, sociologists, or political scientists as the word ‘theory.’ Few words are as ambiguous.”26 Our task is not to sort through this tangle, which would help us little even if we could. Instead, reversing course from the contrast we previously drew with the natural sciences, let us now see what methodological lessons we can borrow from them. Rather than bemoaning what a theory cannot do, let us see what it can do. We turn now to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and his understanding of a paradigm to chart this new course.27 As Plutarch turns our attention to the study of great leaders who came before so that we can learn by example, Kuhn can help us to understand how to read Aron as our contemporary.

Kuhn’s work examines the overlap between epistemology and psychology occurring at the rupture between one scientific explanation for a causal relation of the physical world and another. A change in theory from, say, Newton’s understanding of physics to Einstein’s occurs gradually as the old guard either comes to accept the greater explanatory power of the new theory or else makes way for a new generation through the steady attrition of time.28 The primary means of conveying this new approach is called a “paradigm.” In 1969, Kuhn added a “Postscript” that clarifies both the sociological operation of scientific communities and, perhaps, something deeper about human nature: humans learn more by example than abstract rules. A paradigm is an example of a certain status that is not itself a literal set of rules or assumptions but may be considered an expression or encapsulation thereof.29 The paradigm helps us learn the general by means of the particular so that we may extrapolate from this particular to comprehend the novel.

Kuhn observes that man does not learn by laws expressed in literal, discursive prose alone. We often learn by example. One can memorize a series of concepts and propositions without really understanding what these mean or how to apply them. “That sort of learning is not acquired by exclusively verbal means. Rather it comes as one is given words together with concrete examples of how they function in use; nature and words are learned together…. [W]hat results from this process is ‘tacit knowledge’ which is learned by doing science rather than by acquiring rules for doing it.”30 The concrete example has a function that transcends itself; it exemplifies something beyond itself. In the case of a scientific theory, the example illustrates something methodological. The physics student ←8 | 9→who drops a bowling ball and an egg from the school roof, for instance, learns at least two things: the particular principle demonstrated and the scientific method more broadly. He learns the gravitational constant in a way that a textbook cannot teach. But, at the same time, he also learns the steps of the scientific method. This experiment then becomes a paradigm. By recalling the procedure employed in this experiment, the student knows how to perform others. He can connect the next experiment directly with this one by simile, without needing to reference a list of general rules to translate between the two. By doing a certain number of these exercises, the thing immediately demonstrated becomes real, and, perhaps more importantly, the general comes to be known via the particular.31 The student, by imbibing “a manner of knowing which is misconstrued if reconstructed in terms of rules that are first abstracted from exemplars,” gains membership in a community of professionals. This belonging comes through the development of an intuition—rather than a checklist—for the way in which things are done. As such, sometimes “the temptation to seek criteria (or at least a full set) should be resisted” in favor of this “manner of knowing” that is far less quantifiable, far less able to be captured in a treatise.32 Armed with the constellation of norms and knowledge that has been distilled into and transmitted by these paradigms, the student-turned-professional is prepared to apply the theories learned. He thinks back to how that particular experiment was performed so as to perform others in a similar way. The paradigm conveys “a way of viewing physical situations rather than in rules or laws.”33 This implicates not only the general principle as well as the particular experiment but also the particular person engaged in this type of education.

Aron offers us a paradigm of political prudence. He did not set out to devise a theory of politics, at least not in the Waltzian or Wendtian sense. He did not endeavor to enumerate the rules of political life or to found an Aronian school.34 Instead, he had a series of conversations about specific issues with specific interlocutors. Most of his works, he himself argued, are destined to pass away because they explore principles primarily by way of particulars. As he explained, “I also have a philosophy of history and of politics which implies that one considers each problem separately, that one does not deduce the desirable solution from a body of first principles laid down once and for all.”35 Nearly forty years after Aron’s death, the reader could be excused for caring more about contemporary crises than about the Six-Day War and other such timebound phenomena. New concerns fill the horizon of political life. That will always be the case. But Aron’s dialogues can serve as more than idle trivia. Aron offers us no theory of political prudence with an inventoried catalog of guidelines. But, as an “exemplary ←9 | 10→representative of this cardinal virtue,” he does offer us a paradigm.36 By undertaking an apprenticeship with Aron, perhaps we too can learn to think politically. But to think politically requires us to understand one of the most important political virtues: prudence.

Prudence, or practical wisdom, seems open to investigation only through the study of paradigms. While the virtue of prudence lacks a “rational account” according to Aristotle, it is not thereby rendered unknowable. He explains, “As for what concerns prudence, we might grasp it by contemplating whom we say to be prudent.” In other words, the study of prudence depends less upon the divination of a checklist of requirements or a literal, discursive prose definition than reflection upon particular individuals and their particular decisions in given situations. Unlike experiments in the natural sciences, these situations and decisions cannot be replicated. But we can still learn from them even in their irreducible uniqueness. Aristotle offers a further clue to our study when he observes that the young cannot be prudent because “prudence is also of particulars, which come to be known as a result of experience.” Nonetheless, he suggests that perhaps the young, lacking their own experience, could look instead to the example of those more seasoned.37 Similarly, we too can look to the experiences of those who have come before us and have faced unenviable political challenges to discover prudence ourselves. By Aristotle’s estimation, the identification and study of a paradigm of political prudence would seem of more use than a treatise on the matter. But here we run into an additional problem particular to the contemporary field of politics.

Too often scholars in the field give in to the temptation to elide prudence into statesmanship and, subsequently, to consider this virtue the exclusive province of a few select individuals in whom power is joined to wisdom. The Abraham Lincolns and Winston Churchills of the human experience are indeed paradigms of both statesmanship and prudence simultaneously, worthy of our respect, our attention, and our imitation. But prudence, unlike statesmanship, is a democratic virtue, able to be practiced by anyone who cares to do so. And we all ought to do so. If Lincoln and Churchill demonstrated exemplary prudence in their leadership, their exercise of it has been recognized because of their excellence and visibility, not because they alone were capable of it. Political rule is but one province of prudence.38 Raymond Aron offers us a paradigm of prudence which disentangles this virtue from the exercise of political power—his tenure in administrative office lasted but a few weeks—without thereby departing from the realm of politics entirely. This is not to say that he offers us a “pure” case of prudence, even were that not a contradiction of terms, but one that challenges ←10 | 11→the artificial boundaries that habit has come to accept. Nor does Aron suggest that his audience was exclusively or even primarily comprised of legislators and ministers. Through his books, articles, and especially his newspaper columns, he demonstrates that he instead “wrote for members of the educated public.”39 Citizen Aron, an exemplar from the people, will be our paradigm for the people. He will show us that prudence is a virtue open to any willing to pursue it.

In place of political or administrative decisions to examine, Aron’s prudence is present to us instead in his dialogues, in both content and form. His conversations are political in a way that Waltz’s theory, for example, can never be. Waltz writes his theory in a vacuum. His theory becomes comprehensive by its selective application: he chooses particular examples because they demonstrate his rule. That which does not fit—e.g., the foreign policy of a particular country—is excised rather than presented as a fundamental rupture that, á la Kuhn, may force a revolution. The exception does not interact with the rule. Aron’s examples, by contrast, are not simply those he deems conducive to proving his thesis. He did not have this luxury. His examples are those crises that France and the West confronted in his time. Where Waltz can sever and deny, Aron recognizes that France’s denial of a rising Nazi Germany, for instance, comes at her own peril.40 Politics must, of necessity, confront the incommensurable because, in political practice, not to choose is still a choice. Aron shows us how he arrives at his particular choices without losing sight of his guiding principles. Aron’s prudence is also evident in his rhetoric. Participation in the political is always mediated by language. All the more so when the participant is primarily an observer rather than a political or administrative official. Aron examines and persuades. He shows us how to have a reasoned conversation in an age of ideologies. The dialogue being the sinew of democracy—and the art of the political conversation seemingly lost of late, this dimension of his work too deserves our attention. The chapters that follow will examine Aron as a paradigm in both of these respects. We will watch a political theory, in the Aronian sense, being both developed and practiced.

Philosopher, Soldier, Journalist, Sociologist, Professor: Committed Observer

As Aron unremittingly emphasizes the importance of milieu, a brief synopsis of our exemplar’s life and times may help illuminate the exigencies behind his thought and works as well as why he merits our attention. Aron is perhaps the most interesting figure in the twentieth century of whom no one has heard. ←11 | 12→Born in 1905, Raymond Aron spent his childhood in Versailles among the “solid French Jewish bourgeoisie.”41 His grandparents on both sides were financially well-off, allowing for the rather insouciant conditions of his youth prior to 1929 and the attendant depression.42 An early love of books and what he dubbed a “vanity” in being “always eager to be classed first” foreshadowed his later achievements.43 The pivotal moment, according to him, accompanied his discovery of philosophy in the 1921–1922 academic year.44

In recalling his childhood, Aron’s distaste for romanticizing the past comes to the forefront. He does not discount errors or spare from criticism even those dearest to him in the name of congeniality. Instead, as will later become a motif of his work, Aron offers unflinching reflections upon both the triumphs and tragedies of others and himself, with the latter perhaps receiving more attention than the former. In this light, Aron tells his readers that a certain disquiet of the soul seems to have run in the family blood. His father, Gustave Aron, turned aside from the prospering family textile business to study law, and ultimately settled for lesser teaching positions despite his intellectual promise. Even prior to the elder Aron’s death in 1934, our Aron felt himself “the bearer of the hopes of [his father’s] youth, entrusted with the task of providing his father with a kind of compensation,” even “a second chance.”45 The younger Aron would mark this as a key motivation through most of his career, an obligation he considered fulfilled in the final account but only after fifty years of pursuit.46

Aron began learning the art of conversation early. He recalls, “My parents let us participate in all conversations, even with noted professors.... Some of my parents’ friends called me ‘the lawyer,’ because I argued with such facility.”47 This most human of capacities, reasoned speech, would be critical throughout his career, and he would go on to become fluent in three languages (langue)—French, German, and English—and a number of specialized vocabularies therein (langage)—e.g., journalistic, economic.48 But, as suggested earlier, his exposure to the langage and history of philosophy would become decisive in his career. As he grew, what was originally a slate of courses designed only to avoid mathematics became revelatory of a natural talent that carried him to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1924.49 Aron recalls, “My first impression of the ENS... was wonder.” He continues, “I have never met so many intelligent men assembled in such a small space.”50 Indeed, a defining virtue of a civilization as centralized as France is that all roads lead to Paris, and thus all the most promising minds come into contact at the most elite school there. The ENS student and alumni roster reads as a “Who’s Who” of French intellectuals; Aron enjoyed the companionship of classmates during his years including Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul ←12 | 13→Nizan, and the tutelage of professors including Léon Brunschvicg, Émile “Alain” Chartier, and Alexandre Kojéve.51 Yet no relationship would be more pivotal than that with classmate, roommate, and friend Jean-Paul Sartre, whose genius, “richness of... imagination,” and “self-confidence” Aron had no hesitation in recognizing.52 Together they received a superior education from the greatest neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian scholars of their time. In approaching the national agrégation exam in 1928, Aron recalls that he and Sartre were predicted to vie for first place. Ultimately, Aron claimed the top spot while Sartre failed the exam, an outcome that Aron recalls not having “le[d] [him] to revise [his] judgement about [Sartre] or [himself]” as Sartre “had not played the game” while Aron had.53 Aron also recalls leaning heartily to the political left at the time.54

After Aron’s eighteen months of obligatory military service, his path turned East toward Germany. He obtained a post as a teaching assistant at the University of Cologne in the spring of 1930 and, from there, a similar position in Berlin from 1931 to 1933.55 Leaving behind his native France forced him to see his home and all that was familiar from a new perspective, to confront his unchallenged assumptions about the world. Additionally, his studies in German philosophy and political economy, “compared to which French writers suddenly seemed to [him] mediocre, almost empty,” opened for Aron new horizons and would influence his thought throughout his career.56 While it may astound the contemporary reader, the thinkers Aron studied in Germany—Karl Marx, Max Weber, Edmund Husserl, etc.—were largely unfamiliar in neo-Kantian, inter-war Paris; it was Aron, in fact, who introduced Sartre, “the Father of Existentialism,” to the phenomenology that would inspire his own philosophy. But, more than this, Aron discovered politics. While he had gone East to study philosophy, Aron recalls of his time in Germany, “I gradually grasped my two tasks: to understand or to know my time as honestly as possible, without ever losing awareness of the limits of my knowledge; to detach myself from immediate events without, even so, accepting the role of spectator.” 57 Germany, he comments, “was my fate.”58

Aron’s experience across the border from France would constitute for him a political education of sorts as he found himself present for one of the more interesting developments in human history. Shortly after Aron’s arrival in Cologne, the Nazi party won 107 seats in the Reichstag in the 1930 elections. By the time Aron left Germany in 1933, a man by the name of Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor. Between bouts of studying, Aron ventured forth from the library and classroom to immerse himself in this new environment. What he discovered alarmed him. Witness to the last days of the Weimer Republic, Aron became “aware of the distress of the German youth,” the rampant poverty, ←13 | 14→and, most of all, the unspoken, festering fear.59 He befriended German students, including those sympathetic to National Socialism, and “heard Goebbels and Hitler several times” speak in person.60 As Aron recalls in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France decades later, “I felt, almost physically, the approach of historical storms. History is again on the move.... I am still marked by this experience, which inclined me toward an active pessimism.”61 Aron was witness to the movements of the masses and the power of the irrational—perhaps a-rational—in politics. After this lesson in human behavior, Aron returned home with all the confidence of a burgeoning academic. But his theoretical insight, however penetrating, did not spare him from making the most humbling yet most formative misstep of his career.

Aron’s discoveries in Germany led to his infamous meeting in 1932 with the French Deputy Foreign Minister that would forever haunt him. Having drawn upon his political connections to secure an audience, Aron recalls “deliver[ing] a lecture, brilliant I suppose” to this official concerning the threat posed by the rise of Hitler and his movement. In 1932, after all, ample time remained to change the course of history. Even the Munich Agreement was still years away. Aron continues his reminiscence:

[The Deputy Minister] listened to me attentively, apparently with interest. When my speech ended, he answered me…. “The moment is ripe for all initiatives. But you, who have spoken so well about Germany and all the dangers appearing on the horizon, what would you do if you were in [the Minister of Foreign Affair’s] place?” I do not remember my answer: I am sure that it was embarrassed, unless I kept silent.

Over the next decade, this moment would become for him a bitter remembrance as this modern day Cassandra watched the descent of Europe into unfathomable tragedy.62 Years before almost anyone else, this gifted student of philosophy understood. He understood the actors. He understood the situation. He understood everything about the problem except the most practical, most obvious, and most important element: the solution. This singular oversight became the guiding light in his thought thereafter and a catalyst for his conversion: the philosopher became the committed observer of political life.63 Where his mind had dwelled upon epistemological quandaries and ideal types, this scar became a reminder that politics continues even where the safe boundaries of theoretical analysis end. This question would haunt his thought and will become a leitmotif of the present investigation as well.


XIV, 338
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
Raymond Aron Jean-Paul Sartre Friedrich Hayek Charles de Gaulle Liberalism Prudence Cold War Nationalism Marxism Dialogue Ideology Politics Nathan Orlando Raymond Aron and his Dialogues in an Age of Ideologies
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XIV, 338 pp., 1 b/w ill., 1 color ill.

Biographical notes

Nathan Orlando (Author)

Nathan Orlando is an assistant professor of political science at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Hillsdale College and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Baylor University. He previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at Saint Vincent College.


Title: Raymond Aron and His Dialogues in an Age of Ideologies
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354 pages