Nobody dies a “happy death,” to use the title of Albert Camus’s early novel. But Raymond Aron’s death, on October 17, 1983, was both merciful and beautifully appropriate. He had suffered a heart attack in April 1977. For a few hours after it, he was unable to speak and for several hours he was partially paralyzed. He recovered, but he felt that he had lost a little of his legendary facility with words, and he feared that his “reprieve” might end in protracted illness and decline, as in the case of Sartre, his old petit camarade from the Ecole Normale. Instead, he died like another man who had played an enormous role in his life, de Gaulle: a second heart attack struck him down in an instant.
When he died, his memoirs,1 published a month earlier, had become the top best seller in France, and been greeted with a mixture of awe and enthusiasm to which he was assuredly not used. In old age the man who had so often felt either unappreciated or rejected in his own country had become the center of a sort of national consensus, like Voltaire. He enjoyed it, and had thrown himself into a strenuous round of interviews and radio and television programs—not so much in order to gloat as because he could never stop teaching.
He was still teaching when he collapsed. He had just finished testifying in favor of his friend Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had sued for libel the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell’s most recent book, about fascism in France between the two world wars,2 had annoyed Aron, not only because of what it said about Jouvenel’s writings and attitudes, but because he thought that the book was ahistorical, and offered a view of the pervasiveness of fascism in French thought that was tendentious and inaccurate. Aron, the Jewish antifascist who had seen Hitler’s rise to power during his years of study in Germany (1930-1933), and had been convinced that a war was inevitable, who had edited, from London during the war years, after the fall of France, a journal called La France libre, characteristically died while defending a man who had, for a while, been on the other side in the 1930s; and he died while criticizing an Israeli antifascist historian who had misinterpreted French history.
Throughout his life, Aron had shocked the French by taking unfashionable stands, by flouting the conventional distinction between left and right, not because he liked to be provocative (to be sure, he did not mind it), but because of his passion against myths and prejudices, his need for intellectual lucidity, and his attachment to liberal values.
Aron’s greatest legacy, to his students and to his readers, may not have been any one of his forty books and innumerable articles. His greatest influence was teaching them how to think about history,…
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