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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky [Paperback]

Paul Johnson
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2007 0061253170 978-0061253171 Revised

A fascinating portrait of the minds that have shaped the modern world. In an intriguing series of case studies, Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tynan, and Noam Chomsky, among others, are revealed as intellectuals both brilliant and contradictory, magnetic and dangerous.


Frequently Bought Together

Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky + Modern Times  Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Perennial Classics) + A History of the Jews
Price for all three: $41.41

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Paul Johnson is a historian whose work ranges over the millennia and the whole gamut of human activities. He regularly writes book reviews for several UK magazines and newspapers, such as the Literary Review and The Spectator, and he lectures around the world. He lives in London, England.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Revised edition (May 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061253170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061253171
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #168,891 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Beginning with Modern Times (1985), Paul Johnson's books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
238 of 253 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Devastating Stuff December 31, 2007
Format:Paperback
This is the kind of book that is either going to inspire or infuriate you, but it should provoke valuable discussion and thought in either case. Johnson's thesis is quite simple: the revolutionary thinkers whose ideas have shaped intellectual history over the past 250 years were, for the most part, lousy human beings. These were not not common or garden variety jerks but personalities whose flaws were so manifest that they must call into question the value of the theories they generated.

This is an interesting proposition. Does it matter that Peter Sellers, the world's greatest comedic actor, was a vile neurotic, that Marilyn Monroe was a goddess on screen but a drug-addled manipulator in everyday life, that Winston Churchill, who saved civilization during World War II, was also an alcoholic egomaniac? Probably not. But Johnson asks a deeper question: if a thinker cannot live out his own principles, can these ideas have any real merit? His book convinces us that there is a real connection between the rancid lives lived by intellectuals and the disasters their ideas produced.

For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is adored by educational theorists and his ideas are entrenched in the curricula of teachers' colleges, despite the fact that he serially abandoned every one of his children. Karl Marx was bourgeois to the core and seems to have exploited the only working-class woman he ever knew: paying her starvation wages, impregnating her and forcing her to abandon their child. Johnson lacerates the behaviour of these prominent figures but more importantly shows how their shabby personal values foreshadow the social harm their works engendered.
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118 of 138 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bombastic, but the core message resonates August 29, 2008
Format:Paperback
Unfortunately, this book suffers from the sacred cow syndrome. Johnson discredits so many of the secular world's heroes, that many will not allow his voice to come through the din of their ad hominem accusations. It really is a shame because they cry foul without looking at the big picture.

At first glance, this work appears to be using an Ad Hominem attack against mostly secular thinkers. But at its core, it has a much more profound message. These 'attacks' are actually case studies on the validity of the ideas these intellectuals are passing on to our society.

His point is this: If these intellectuals' ideas are going to affect the quality of our lives, we must inspect the quality of these intellectuals' lives. This is not ad hominem, it is looking for the proof in the pudding. If the thinkers are putting forth ideas on the mating habits of the Blue Whale, then looking at their personal life is indeed ad hominem. But if our moral framework is being influenced by a great thinker, then it is perfectly acceptable to look at his or her morality.

I will say that Johnson is very caustic in his critiques (and hilarious at points), but I believe if you read critiques of non-secular moral advocates who were caught with inconsistencies between their private and public lives, the critiques are at least as biting.

Finally, I don't believe most skeptics have read the whole book. The last line of the book is actually where the most clarity is shared.

"Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.
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50 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Critic misses the point November 4, 2010
Format:Paperback
Most reviews of this book are positive, but those which are critical have, I believe, missed the point.

It is easy to accuse Dr. Johnson of ad hominem attacks on these leftist icons. However, his main thesis, as pointed out by others, is that in their own lives they manifestly embraced completely different principles. They clearly did not believe the ideas they were advocated to the rest of us. In some cases -- Bertolt Brecht in particular -- it is clear that they simply profited personally from promoting ideas favorable to the state or to other powerful interests. In other cases -- Marx, for example -- we see the resentful expressions of people who had vaulting opinions of themselves and believed the world owed them a lavish living for sharing their genius with us.

The ideas themselves -- communism and socialism -- have, of course, been thoroughly dissected, debunked and disproved in the course of the 20th century. Unfortunately, they have not been entirely discarded; they are still revered by the current crop of intellectual elites.

Incidentally, is is technically correct that there are conservative intellectuals. However, the term, like "progressive", has been largely co-opted by the political Left, so that its basic meaning has been supplanted by an ideological one.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it twice. July 17, 2012
Format:Paperback
"This book is an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct it's affairs." This first line in the Acknowledgments prepares you for what is to come. The great irony Mr. Johnson exposes in Marx is poetic: "In all his researches into the iniquities of British capitalists, he came across many instances of low-paid workers but he never succeeded in unearthing one who was paid literally no wages at all. Yet such a worker did exist in his own household. Read about Helen Demuth who worked in the Marx household as a maid for 45 years and never made a penny. "[She was] the only member of the working class that Marx knew at all well, his one real contact with the proletariat" (p. 80, '88 ed.).

Another book something like this is "The Philosophers" by Ben-Ami- Scharfstein (0-19-505927-1). He tend to over-psychologize at times, but it's an interesting read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An answer back
A must for anyone seeking to balance the usual gushing and all too often uncritical reviews of those who laid the groundwork for modern progressive thought, particularly in the... Read more
Published 10 days ago by frog in the pot
5.0 out of 5 stars Degenerates
Paul Johnson does an excellent job at taking an unbiased and honest deep look into the lives of the greatest thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Read more
Published 13 days ago by Deets
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Writing Poor Content
I read this book back in 2008 and found that Johnson selected a basket-full of socialist/atheist writers and philosophers then besmirched their reputations with an abundant amount... Read more
Published 2 months ago by W. R. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative, Fast-Paced and Entertaining
Most of us seem to share an unexamined notion that history’s Great Thinkers were (like the children of Lake Wobegon) personally above average. Read more
Published 2 months ago by John R. Holmes, Jr.
1.0 out of 5 stars Author with an Agenda - Cheap lies like in the worst magazines
I never write reviews and I'm not going to spend much time on this one. The book did disgust me enough to warrant a review though, it bothers me I actually gave this lying bastard... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Emil Herveus
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent but not Wise
In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. Read more
Published 3 months ago by David Hoffman
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a hoot!
Don't read this if your personal gods include the giants of twentieth century intellectualism. Do read it if you often find yourself scratching your head at the stupid things that... Read more
Published 4 months ago by John E. Entwistle
5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful
Referred by R.C. Sproul, Jr. He said this would give insight and explain Roman 1, it definitely does. It's almost like reading something from C.S. Lewis but real life characters. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Humberto Valdez
1.0 out of 5 stars About them by one who is not
Paul Johnson is a censorious prig of the sort that only America and Mother England can produce. Recommended as a purgative.
Published 5 months ago by Edwin J. Firmage
4.0 out of 5 stars Great research on the intellectuals that most influenced the modern...
This is the second book I have read by Paul Johnson. The first one -"A History of the American People"- was great five stars book. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Riccardo Forte
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