When someone who knows what he’s talking about, say Daniel J. Mahoney, the dean of American Aron scholars, talks about Raymond Aron (1905–1983), the elements and broad shape of the discussion are givens. The discussion starts with some version of a bold claim—frequently, that Aron was arguably the single best political analyst in the twentieth century—and then proceeds to back it up. First, the steps of his intellectual biography are limned: 1) how Aron was mugged by totalitarian reality in 1930s Germany, which taught him that Enlightenment optimism was deeply flawed and that the achievements of civilization are fragile, never to be taken for granted; 2) the intellectual resources to which he repaired to come to terms with pre- and postwar domestic and international reality, starting with the German sociologist Max Weber and his tragic sense of conflicts in social life (in recognizing Weber’s merits, Aron avoided the temptation of condemning everything in the German enemy; this was a category mistake that someone seeking clarity could ill avoid); and finally 3) Aron’s increasing appropriation of sober premodern authors such as Thucydides and Aristotle while also drawing from the modern canon of liberal thinkers, Montesquieu and Tocqueville especially. The latter thinkers produced analyses of dawning modern society—liberal and democratic—that penetrated to essentials and were permanent achievements of social science. Most helpfully, they were attuned to the “antinomies” and tradeoffs inherent in this new form of social existence.

The “Aron case” then proceeds to report any number of fine analyses offered by him from 1939 to his death, concerning nuclear weapons, or the Algerian question, or the modernization of the French economy after the war, or NATO and the transatlantic alliance, or de Gaulle’s independent foreign policy, or French Communists and the French Right, or the decline in civic