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Intellectuals Paperback – April 6, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Conservative historian Paul Johnson wears his ideology proudly on his sleeve in this often ruthless dissection of the thinkers and artists who (in his view) have shaped modern Western culture, having replaced some 200 years ago "the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind." Taking on the likes of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, and Noam Chomsky in turn, Johnson examines one idol after another and finds them all to have feet of clay. In his account, for instance, Ernest Hemingway emerges as an artistic hero who labored endlessly to forge a literary style unmistakably his own, but also as a deeply flawed man whose concern for the perfect phrase did not carry over to a concern for the women who loved him. Gossipy and sharply opinionated, Johnson's essay in cultural history spares no one.

Does it really matter that Henrik Ibsen was vain and arrogant, that Jean-Paul Sartre was incontinent? In Johnson's view, it does: these all-too-human foibles disqualify them, and other thinkers, from presuming to criticize the shortcomings of society. "Beware intellectuals," he concludes (though, given the subjects of his book, it seems he means intellectuals only of the left). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice." Whether one agrees or not, Johnson's profiles are frequently amusing and illuminating, as when he suggests that the only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid, except in room and board, for her labors. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Written from a conservative standpoint, these pummeling profiles of illustrious intellectuals are caustic, skewed, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging. The author of A History of the World skeptically weighs each pundit's moral and judgmental credentials to give advice to humanity. He plays up the personal shortcomings of Marx, a failed academic given to pseudoscientific jargon, habitual anger and dictatorial habits; Sartre, a spoiled only child, existentialist philosopher of action who did nothing of consequence for the French Resistance and never lifted a finger to save the Jews; pacifist Bertrand Russell, who repeatedly advocated "preventative" nuclear war against Stalinist Russia between 1945 and 1949; Hemingway, whose adolescent rejection of his parents' religion is said to have triggered his secular ethic of action and violence. This rogues' gallery includes "notorious liar" Lillian Hellman; self-publicists Norman Mailer and Bertolt Brecht; leftist publisher Victor Gollancz, "a monster of self-deception"; Shelley, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Ibsen, others.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson History; New Ed edition (April 6, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1842120395
  • ISBN-13: 978-1842120392
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (118 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,427,915 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

63 of 69 people found the following review helpful By David Spor on May 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Paul Johnson's Intellectuals is a must read for anyone who loves history, philosophy, biography, or just plain juicy gossip. It's style is wonderful - fast paced with clear prose that makes you feel like you are being told a good, gripping story. There are enough details, backed by extensive notes, to keep you well informed, but not so much that the non-history buff will find his eyes glazing over. There is also some solid factual ammunition for conservatives in Johnson's account of Marx's utter lack of scholarship.
Perhaps the one serious drawback about the book is that Johnson does not really draw out the argument which it was written to make. Johnson wants to call into question the authority of intellectuals who lead immoral lives to give the average man advice about life, but other than raising the question, he does little to draw the argument to a logical conclusion. Reciting the numerous vices of the intellectuals in question is not an argument. It must be connected with some other proposition, such as that those who are immoral are intellectualy unreliable, or that bad ideas come from bad people, in order to make a case. In the end, Johnson fails to do that, and the book ends up more like a circumstantial ad hominem (at its best) or an extended gossip column (at its worst).
I would recommend the book as a delightful, informative read, but if you are looking for logical argumentation, you will have to supply your own. Intellectuals supplies the conservative with a great deal of material from which to create a premise, but the logical form and the conclusion will have to come from some other source.
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105 of 126 people found the following review helpful By Guillermo Maynez on March 16, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a funny and truly provocative book. By "intellectual", Johnson means scientists or artists who go well beyond their abilities and try to design new codes of behavior, new systems of government and new moral rules for the humankind. That is, people who, just because they are good at doing something, think they get the moral right (and duty) to tell the rest of the world how to conduct their affairs.
Through several biographic essays, Johnson shows just how dangerous some intellectuals can become, and at the same time he shows us the low level of their ethical record. Undoubtedly, he exaggerates at some points, and in some other his gossipy is too much, but beyond that, his thesis is valid and solidly grounded. I agree with the central idea: that being a good poet, playwright or mathematician doesn't mean that one is qualified to give opinions about every possible subject, the more politicized, the better. Johnson correctly rejects utopianisms and Messiah-like behaviors. Of course, the bad moral credentials of these people does not diminish the quality of their work in the least, but the book rightly states that arrogant intellectuals are also capable of saying and doing stupid things. Don't buy it? Check out newspapers and magazines and see European and American "intellectual celebrities" talk about complex conflicts in other parts of the world, of which they know nothing but nonetheless give radical -and frequently imbecile- opinions.
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92 of 113 people found the following review helpful By Nottingham on October 29, 2002
Format: Paperback
Paul Johnson takes on a line-up of first class intellectuals spanning three centuries, and declares: Beware Intellectuals.
By shining a bright light on the dark side of these very public figures - on their greed, their lust and promiscuity, their deceit and arrogance, and especially the despicable way they treated those around them, including and especially their spouse and children while proclaiming selfless love for humanity, Johnson made a strong case on how only human these luminaries truly were. And posed the question as to how fit intellectuals really were in preaching to others how they should manage their affairs.
You will find an idol or two of yours deflated as you read Johnson's well-researched book. Some would argue that the merits of a man's ideas are independent of the man himself. This is certainly true with scientific ideas (or theories), which can be empirically validated. Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, or even James Watson were not necessarily what one wants for close friends, but one would not reject the theories of relativity, thermonuclear reaction and the double-helical structure of DNA for the personal failings of these scientists. On the other hand, one must wonder aloud the value of the social theories proclaimed by the intellectuals who somehow saw their theories fit for the masses but not for themselves!
Perhaps this book is one-sided. It mostly picked on the leftists. I am afraid the raw statistics are also quite one-sided. It is the vision of the left to see themselves as an anointed group who are destined to "run things" to make a better world. Regardless, I am inclined to think that the intellectuals on the right are just as hypocritical, if fewer in number.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 4, 1999
Format: Paperback
The reviewers who don't think Johnson "defined" what an Intellectual is haven't read the book very carefully. For Johnson, an "intellectual" is pretty clearly anybody who thinks s/he can jettison all the received wisdom of the past, particularly of inherited religious tradition, and reinvent society from the ground up using nothing but the unaided power of the human mind -- his or her own.
Just how good the unaided human mind is at reinventing society is illustrated in this volume by a close look at the personal lives of several icons of the secular left. And sure enough, they turn out to have botched it completely; lovers of humanity that they were, they seem to have been incapable of dealing fairly or decently with any actual, individual human beings with whom they came in contact.
Many of the same points could have been illustrated by a look at the life of Ayn Rand -- who shares many of the premises of the Left, would count as an "intellectual" by Johnson's standard, and botched her own life just as badly and thoroughly as anyone in this volume. (And readers of Jeff Walker's flawed _The Ayn Rand Cult_ might well wish Johnson would write a sequel devoted to the major personalities of the "Objectivist" movement.) But Johnson was clearly out to topple the idols of the Left in this book -- and it's about time.
By the way, Johnson explicitly acknowledges several times that few lives could stand up under the close scrutiny he gives to his selected "intellectuals." But most people don't lay the claims for themselves and their ideas that these "intellectuals" do.
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