Liberty and Equality is the title of the last course given by Raymond Aron on April 4, 1978, at the Collège de France—one of the country’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Thanks to the work of Samuel Garrett Zeitlin, it is now made available to American readers in the English translation. 

Pierre Manent, who oversaw the original publication of this lecture, and whose preface to the French edition is included here as an epilogue, often said of Aron that he personified the classical orator in his capacity “to speak with authority and competence on public matters.” Zeitlin must be commended for his awareness of what he himself calls the “Periclean” character of Aron’s discourse, and for his willingness to remain faithful, within the constraints of contemporary English, to Aron’s style, vocabulary, and syntax. But, beyond the quality and accuracy of its translation, this lecture also provides a useful introduction to one of liberal democracy’s most sincere and thoughtful friends in the twentieth century as he addresses his audience at the dusk of his life and intellectual career.

Almost a year before, in May 1977, Aron had suffered from an embolism that partially impaired his speech and prompted his retirement. Freed from teaching responsibilities, he would devote the remaining years of his life to his memoirs and maintain a public presence by offering his support to the creation of Commentaire, a quarterly founded by his closest students, as well as regular columns in a weekly magazine called L’Express.

Those years are also marked by two events in which Aron’s character shows from underneath a generally composed and discreet demeanor. In 1979, as Jean-Paul Sartre was rapidly declining (he would die a year later), Aron agreed to meet and shake hands with one of his most ferocious public opponents in a joint effort to convince then–French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to offer asylum to refugees of the Vietnam war. Aron and Sartre were the two poles of French public and intellectual life in postwar France, but they had not always been adversaries. In fact, they had developed a close friendship while attending the École Normale Supérieure in the 1920s. After his stay in Germany in the early 1930s, it was Aron who suggested Sartre follow suit and take an interest in German phenomenologya move that would prove essential to Sartre’s intellectual trajectory. 

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

When the war broke out, Aron was mobilized, and once the armistice of 1940 was signed, fled to London to join de Gaulle and the Free France government in exile. Upon his enlisting in an armored division with the hope of taking part in the liberation of his country, Aron’s superiors decided that his talents would be better used at France Libre, an intellectual review aimed at fighting the moral acceptance of the defeat. Sartre, for his part, was made prisoner. Following his release, a year later, he decided to remain in France and carried on a still largely apolitical intellectual and literary career at the time. It is only after the war that his politicization began and that Aron and Sartre fell out, following a short-lived editorial collaboration at the Temps Modernes, after which Aron went on to write for the right-leaning newspaper Figaro. One was mostly concerned with restoring the unity of France while the other participated enthusiastically in the intellectual épuration (“purification”) of suspected collaborators. One set out to defend liberal democracy and the other became a fellow traveler of the communist party. From then on, Sartre never shied away from publicly abusing his former friend. Although saddened by the situation, Aron always refrained from hitting back.

Aron himself would die four years after the aforementioned meeting, as he was leaving a courtroom where he had come to testify in defense of his long-time friend Bertrand de Jouvenel in a libel suit against historian Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell had characterized Jouvenel as “pro-Nazi” and a “fascist,” as part of his controversial thesis that fascism had its intellectual roots in France. A man of the left, Jouvenel had become tempted during the 1930s by radical alternatives to liberal democracy, and took part in the activities of several publications and political movements that were indeed sympathetic to fascism. But he broke with those movements after the Munich agreements and went on to become one of the leading figures of French liberalism after the war.

Having witnessed firsthand the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933, and engaged with the radical critiques of liberal democracy that overtook the German youth at the time, Aron returned from Germany estranged from the vague socialism and generous pacifism of his own youth. Jouvenel underwent the same process. Together with their generation, both experienced the collapse of liberalism’s promise to establish the conditions of an ever more peaceful and prosperous world where relations between states could be administered by law and softened by compromise. But, unlike Aron, most who remained defenders of liberal democracy were prone to dismiss the share of truth that hid behind its enemies’ most violent critiques and repeated the same arguments in favor of peace, ignoring their having lost any currency precisely because of that critique. And, like Jouvenel, most who admitted these critiques concluded that liberal democracy was doomed by its incapacity to justify the war to come and sought alternatives (communism or fascism) that could withstand the shock of history.

Aron is one of a few who never let the ideologies and catastrophic events of the twentieth century get the better of him. Ready to face those critiques and recognize their share of truth, he always refrained from taking the practical conclusions that so many cravenly or imprudently derived from them. In the face of events, he showed his capacity for a principled and prudent analysis of what needed to be done to overcome the situation of weakness of our regime. In the face of ideologies, he set out to rethink the foundations of liberal democracy on the basis of an honest reckoning of the blind spots revealed by its failure to stand up to the threat of totalitarianism. 

In the face of ideologies, Aron set out to rethink the foundations of liberal democracy on the basis of an honest reckoning of the blind spots revealed by its failure to stand up to the threat of totalitarianism.


But through all this, Aron showed more than courage, wisdom, and prudence. If he never again subscribed to the illusion that justice could dispense with the reality of force and the virtues attached to it, he never indulged in the pleasure of inflicting harm, as Sartre did in the fever of post-war épuration. Despite their mistakes, their blindness, or even the harm they willingly inflicted upon him, his friends never succeeded in exhausting the generosity and grace that were so central to his character. He was, to put it simply, a perfect gentleman. However deserving of our praise for that reason, our admiration would still fall short of his true merit, although it does point us in its direction.

Mark Lilla rightly reminds us in his preface to this translation that Aron was “the most prominent French liberal thinker of the Cold War period.” And he is indeed most commonly associated by scholars with a galaxy of thinkers usually referred to as “Cold War liberals” or “cold warriors.” These include such figures as Karl Popper, Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, and others. Despite widely diverging views and approaches to political problems, those thinkers usually share a degree of awareness regarding the fragility of liberal institutions and consequently assert the necessity to think through the moral, social, cultural, and political conditions of liberal freedom. Against their elders, they contend that values and rational institutions don’t stand on their own and defend themselves; they depend on the men and women who uphold them. For many Cold War liberals, this meant rethinking the institutions engendered by a philosophy of progress and an ideal of self-making on the basis of an insight about how men are, rather than how they ought to be. For this reason, these thinkers are, on average, more realistic and pessimistic than ordinary liberals. Toning down the revolutionary character of liberalism, they focus on preserving within it the combined possibilities of human freedom and moderate government. 

In a passionate charge, Samuel Moyn recently accused Cold War liberals of having betrayed liberalism’s initial impulse in favor of a pessimistic and uninspiring defense of our regime. Aron, although not treated in Moyn’s book, was undoubtedly part of the intellectual struggle against totalitarianism during the Cold War. And in that sense, his inclusion in that group of thinkers is not entirely inaccurate. But Aron’s legacy far exceeds the lessons one can draw from that particular episode of our intellectual and political history. He certainly joined Cold War liberals in their critique of communism and utopian aspirations, but while he agreed with a number of their conclusions (when they were sound), one cannot but notice how far apart were his reasons to argue for a return to political moderation.

Joshua Cherniss, in a more positive appraisal of the legacy of Cold War liberalism, which included a chapter on Aron, is on to something when stressing how these thinkers practiced an ethos of moderation. They understood this ethos to be a necessary supplement to liberal principles and institutions, without the support of which they would be incapable of functioning. But what Cherniss fails to provide, and even identify the need for, is the philosophical justification for such an ethos, which he seems to take as a welcome but essentially given condition of liberal democracy. Or rather he derives the need for moderation and freedom from history, from the conflicts that arise from the impossibility of finding a definitive answer to the question of human ends. The liberal ethos, his account goes, would be the courageous attempt to face the human condition understood as a clear consciousness of the indeterminacy of human ends.

Aron’s acknowledgment of the proportion of indeterminacy inherent in human action particularly shows in his rejection of the philosophies of history. What he rejected was their claim to reduce human action to the product of blind causes, indifferent to the ends men invoke to motivate or justify their own action. But while never denying the somewhat bland observation that human beings and collectivities hold mutually exclusive opinions about the motives of their actions, he refused to make the tragic character of history as conflict—any more than the succession of the modes of production—the basis of a moral philosophy. Aron admitted that these opinions and the conflicts they led to, the “war of churches,” were the material from which political science had to start in order to understand the practical realm. But that science could not claim to deduce from these conflicts an alleged “war of gods,” whose “clear consciousness” would be its ultimate insight beyond which it had no further guidance to provide. 

Aron stood apart from thinkers like Marx or even Kant in stressing the indispensable role of human deliberations in understanding the reality of action. For him, there was something to be learned from the agent himself, from practical judgment, which couldn’t be found in history understood as the product of blind causes that make men act toward a hidden end. What drew him to thinkers like Weber and the other Cold War liberals was their interest in these same human motivations; but he remained dissatisfied with their common contention that an order could not be derived—or could be derived only negatively—from such motives, and that their ultimate conflict could only lead to a morality of resolve and conviction, or to one of responsibility or skeptical moderation.

If the reader should not expect to find in Liberty and Equality Aron’s final word on many of the questions raised in the lecture, he will find hints that Aron’s embrace of and concern for liberal democracy owed much less to liberal theory than to the study of political things themselves. In the light of that hypothesis, it becomes easier to understand how easily Aron could both admit the critique that such a theory failed to capture the nature of political life and reject the conclusion that this failure should lead to our practical rejection of the regime to which it offered its support. 

In the French preface to the lecture, Manent points to Aron’s odd remark that the modern definition of liberty (that it “consists in the power to do whatever does not harm another”) is both self-evident and devoid of meaning. Rather than accepting or rejecting that definition, Aron chooses to observe the effects it has, as a ruling opinion, on the political life of the regime dedicated to it. It is on the basis of these observations—that of the types of men who rule, of the means they use and the motives they invoke in order to claim and obtain our obedience—that Aron can attribute to liberal democracy more merits than its definition of freedom alone would allow us to identify. But it also allows him to speak of its decline—even when that definition is still enforced through the rule of law and equipped by prosperity. He is able to do so because the point of view from which these observations start is not that of modern political theory but one that antedates liberalism, the point of view of the agent himself, and of the natural categories in which he finds his practical orientation. 

In this regard, liberal democracy ceases to be a regime hostile to ambition, greatness, concrete relations of command and obedience, or the quest for truth, but the best option at our disposal to organize their humane pursuit. The model for such an approach to human affairs can more easily be found in the political science of Aristotle than in that of any of his contemporaries. Aron’s liberalism wasn’t one of fear. There, the reader will surely find its true merit.

Image by Jerome and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.