Customer Reviews: Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky
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on May 3, 2000
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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on March 16, 2001
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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on October 29, 2002
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.
One key point well argued in this book is that the talent of people in one area, which renders them famous, does not give them license to mentor mankind in all affairs. One sees this folly everyday with many Hollywood and other media celebrities.
"Intellectuals" is a joy to read. While Johnson harshly critiqued the dark side of these intellectuals, he also presented them in the proper historical context and gave due to the epochal importance of their work where it was appropriate. Johnson's writing style was graceful and engaging. Like a good historian, he was meticulous with facts and data, which, though selected to support his thesis, were factual nonetheless. This book, besides being informative, has given me quite a refreshed perspective on intellectuals. It is one of those books that you read and think about again and again because it is rightly provocative.
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on November 4, 1999
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. It is their claims to greatness he is concerned to attack, not their petty immoralities; their immoralities just show that they couldn't live up to their grandiose self-billing.
In particular, Johnson's own extramarital dalliance was just that -- a moral failing on his part that he acknowledges and does not regard as exemplary or even defensible behavior. Unlike the characters he dissects in this book, he does not expect moral standards to be altered to suit his own tastes, whims, and weaknesses -- and he does not present his own mistakes as the messianic Path to Tomorrow. There is no hypocrisy in that.
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on March 3, 2001
Paul Johnson's thesis was not, as suggested in the 'Editorial', that all great thinkers have had feet of clay, but that their ideologies do not stand up to the tests of time, common sense and personal practice. As the ideology of Marx claimed more than 22 million lives through the pogroms, gulags and purges of Stalin, how could anyone argue that a close and critical examination of the life of Marx, and its interplay with the communist philosophy he promulgated, is not important? I don't understand also where one reviewer draws the conclusion that Johnson is a 'Christian.' His religion is never mentioned, and is irrelevant in any event, as he uses empirical methods of analysis. The portraits are not only entertaining, THEY'RE A GREAT SHORTCUT TO ACQUIRING A WORKING KNOWLEDGE OF THE CORPUS OF MODERN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY. This is why the book is so great -- I was born too late to be intimately familiar with the works and philosophies of many of these people, yet I don't have time to read the massed collections of their works. From the remove of history, most of what Johnson concludes about them is true, but it is not a facile conclusion. I agree with his thesis that people are ultimately more important than ideas. If one agrees with this, one has to conceed the efficacy of examining the person behind the idea. And these 'intellectuals' are hillarious, pitiful and crazy. A great book for any political bent.
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on June 2, 1999
This book is an entertaining and scathing attack on a group of popular left-leaning intellectuals who are often trotted out by some liberals again and again as symbols of the highest in human thought and deed (Rousseau, Marx, Russell etc.). Johnson pays them their due: Hemingway IS a great writer; Ibsen IS a great playwright, etc. However, Johnson cautions that talent (especially the ability write well, as many of those he profiles are authors) should not be equated with moral, spiritual, or even intellectual superiority. His point is simply that these people, though they could articulate their ideas well, often lived miserable lives, mistreated others, and/or ignored their own philosophies. Admittedly, these acts of hypocrisy are hardly confined to those philosophers and artists on the left, but it is the intellectuals described in this book that are the ones who are so often used to refute conservatives, especially when those on the right are being accused of being narrow minded, heartless, and moralistic. How many Christians have been told by their non- (or better anti-) religious friends to read Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" or told that, as attributed to Marx, "Religion is the opiate of the Masses", when the discussion turns to matters of faith? Johnson demonstrates that these liberal intellectuals and/or their followers were (and are), for all intents and purposes, doing what moral conservatives are often accused of doing, trying to change the world by imposing, through their exalted position as intellectual elites, their morality and philosophies on others. (Marxism and humanism are two notable examples.) Ultimately, Johnson asserts that these people were no more or less qualified than any other sensible, intelligent person to tell people how to live their lives (maybe even less so because they were often out of touch with the lives of ordinary people).Of course, the same could be said of intellectuals on the right, but, as Johnson tends to be conservative, it's the liberal elite who gets skewered. It's about time!
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on January 12, 2006
The underlying thesis of this book is that intellectuals, while professing great love for humanity in the abstract, tend to treat the people around them rather shabbily. There are indications, however, that Johnson doesn't take his own thesis very seriously; he merely makes a few desultory generalizations such as (I'm paraphrasing) "It's just like an intellectual to behave in this disgraceful manner". Most likely, Johnson was simply seeking a pretext for putting some revealing biographical essays into a single book and hit upon the "intellectuals" theme. He therefore keeps his notion of an intellectual sufficiently vague that anyone will fit the bill; he admits that Hemingway doesn't seem like an intellectual, but nevertheless concludes that "On closer inspection he is not only seen to exhibit all the chief characteristics of the intellectual but to possess them to an unusual degree ..." In other words, he wanted Hemingway in the book.

If we lay aside the book's amorphous, and therefore unprovable, thesis, we are left with a series of biographical essays in which Johnson throws a bit of mud at famous people, mainly those on the political left. Your opinion of the book will therefore depend on how much you like this sort of thing. I personally liked the fact that the essays are short and can be read in almost any order. The pattern of the essays becomes apparent pretty quickly: Johnson usually starts off with some praise for his subject (and he seems to genuinely hold that many of the writers were truly gifted), also providing some early life history. Eventually he writes "Although it's unpleasant, we must now examine so-and-so's private life" and he's off and running.

I've given the book three stars since it is lively and interesting, despite the conservative political slant that Johnson imposes on his material. (However, I doubt he makes up anything from whole cloth.) Judging from other reviews, I conclude that some readers - for reasons that are utterly opaque to me - are so wrapped up in the image of a famous figure that they just can't stand to see any criticism directed against that image.
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on September 30, 2005
This is exactly the kind of book that is bound to split people's opinions, and subsequently their book reviews, right down the middle according to whatever pre-existing opinions they approach this book with. This book is clearly an attack on liberal philosophy, voiced through Johnson's criticizing the iniquitous lives led by the 12 intellectuals he looks at. Those who generally adhere to the philosophies of some these "liberal" thinkers, are likely to disappreciate this work as a conservative dogmatists desparate attempt to uproat liberal philosophy. However if you are more conservative, you might think Johnson has finally exposed all the lies and impracticabilities of liberal philosophy.

In coming to this book, it is important to note, that Johnson's biographal and psychological analysis of these characters is not objective, and places a definite emphasis on every negative aspect of all these thinkers. His underlying argument, known as ad hominem, asserts that these philosophies are rendered impracticable by the fact that their developers led lives of immoral hypocrisy.

However skewed his analysis of these people are, it is also important to note that many of the unfavorable characteristics Johnson places on these people were indeed true. The assertion that people like Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman were compulsive liars is a pretty well established fact, and Rousseau is generally assented to have been a madman. We may not all agree in discrediting one's philosophy simply based on the hypocritical nature of their actions, but the assertion Johnson is making here is not ludicrous, and in my mind is indeed a very good point. These intellectuals are puzzling, in that many of their ideals seemed to be mere illusions that they themselves could not hope to, or in some cases did not want to follow.

Of course Johnson's attack on solely liberal thinkers leads to the complaint of many that an analysis of many conservative intellectuals would render the same results. I am sure that there are many conservative thinkers who are hypocritcal, but liberal thinkers are easier targets for scrutiny due to the fact that for the past 200 years, they have attempted to completely re-structure the moral philosophy of the past, and in most cases setting up their own new ideals in place of old ones. Conservative thinkers are less in the business of making such new, bold claims. All the thinkers Johnson analyzed did make bold re-assertions of the truth, and it only seems sensible to look at ways, if they are in fact true, that these thinkers contradicted their own beliefs.

If anything, this book could prompt us to look more into the lives of these thinkers, in a search for a more balanced perspective. However, it is my opinion that many of the facts

Johnson unearthed about these puzzling intellectuals does completely call into question what they were all about. Johnson's book may be skewed, with only a focus on one side, but it certainly isn't complete gossip nor is it made up at all. It's a well written book worth consideration.
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on December 11, 2002
Johnson wields his sword yet again. For years, the The Left has held an almost universal hold in public intellectual discourse. The result is a monochrome landscape in which only "correct" attitudes are permitted. Those thinking otherwise are dismissed out of hand. The current totalitarian nature of academic intellectual life - "non-progressive" ideas are not tolerated -is a fitting conclusion. Perhaps the rampant rise of anti-Semitism among the Left is yet another sad ending.
That said, this is not an intellectual study per se. It IS a very entertaining series of intellectual biographies of many of the major icons from the past 300 years. The question of whether one's personal foibles affect the veracity of their political ideology is an old debate. What one can say with assuredness is that intellectuals have given rise to some of the most heinous movements in the history of mankind: communism, socialism, fascism, tribalism and religious bigotry. The result of all these various experiments in tyranny were as grim as they were predictable.
Concerning the role of intellectuals, a casual study of Africa reveals that the overwhelming majority of future dictators were from academia, and their heroes were Western intellectuals. Like many featured in the book, few had any practical experience outside the world of ideas. Yet - and this is the point of the whole exercise - they and their Western counterparts were more than willing to tell the rest of us how to live. Worse, the solutions almost inevitably involved violence (Marx's secret obsession). Elaborate abstract schemes for implementing these plans percolate to the top every few years and when they prove uttery unworkable they are quietly discarded.
The essays vary in quality and detail but all are easy to digest. For a counterpoint to the prevailing winds, read this book.
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on August 13, 2005
The first thing that strikes the reader about this work is that it is difficult to qualify. Paul Johnson is a master historian, but, in Intellectuals, he puts together pages that could easily be described as biography, psychology, sociology or political science. His efforts have produced an exquisite narrative questioning, in near revolutionary fashion in light of its being penned in the eighties, whether being called an intellectual is a good thing in the least. In fact, given the examples showcased within, it often should be a term of derision.

Overall, I was quite astounded by this book. It is comprised of twelve individual chapters addressing the life and work of twelve famous intellectuals of western civilization. Included are the likes of Karl Marx, Earnest Hemingway, Henrik Ibsen, and Lillian Hellman. Although, the best section is the final chapter, "The Flight of Reason," in which he analyzes a great many latter twentieth century intellectuals like Norman Mailer, Kenneth Tynan, and Noam Chomsky. It is a riveting synthesis, and, if I were to reread it, this would be the first chapter I'd turn to.

Numerous themes are developed. Perhaps most central is that the intellectual's public stance on moral and political issues often flagrantly contradicts with the values they practice in their own private lives. In all situations, we see this to be to the case in Intellectuals. The prophet's great love of humanity directly clashes with their despicable way of treating friends and associates. Shelley committed boggling acts of larceny and his egotistic outlook on the world vicariously caused some of his friends to be imprisoned for debt. He forgot about them before they were even locked up. Also, it seems that the truth was perpetually elusive to these men and women. Victor Gollancz stated that he was incapable of error, but appeared incapable of recognizing facts. Lillian Hellman's vanity caused her to sue Mary McCarthy for defamation, and the result of the trial was calamity for the playwright. All that came of it was the public's discovery of Hellman's dedication to deception and deceit. Time and time again, we find that these great progressive advancers of women's causes treated the women they consorted with like sexual baubles. A trail of devastation was left in their seminal wake. This was acutely true of Shelley, Rousseau, Tolstoy and Russell. Personal conflicts often, via a deluded narcissistic sense of grandeur, were foisted upon the world disguised as political opinion.

Speaking of political opinion, one of the reviewers mentioned that Johnson singled out left-wing personalities alone for disparagement. For the most part, I disagree with this view as artists historically have been predominantly members of the left or at least they have fallen somewhere within the leftist sphere of influence. Although it must be acknowledged that Ayn Rand could have been included here. She would have been a suitable vein for a psychologizing historian to mine. Flynn's recent Intellectual Morons discusses her life at great length, and she would have fit in well within Johnson's narrative. I should further mention that the recent Flynn book was quite good, but it paled in comparison to the profundity of this one.

Yes, these lives are repulsive, but I have to say that I believe Johnson treats them fairly. One critic asked, "where are his favorite artists?" Well, I'd say they can be found right here. As human beings, these celebrities did not excel, but, as artists, some were superlative. The narrator diligently refuses to sell them short. He compliments the artistic merits of Hemingway, Shelley, and Tolstoy. Indeed, Johnson never hedges on the matter of Shelley's unworldly poetic talent. With Hemingway, he notes that his artistic integrity was a constant in his life, and it could be negotiated under no circumstance. Johnson also makes mention that Tolstoy produced two of the greatest novels ever. With Norman Mailer, he labels his first book, The Naked and the Dead, as "outstanding."

Outside of Roger Kimball, you just cannot find commentary so lucid and challenging in our present day. Intellectuals is a glittering, ornate classic. This book has been around for a long time, and its used copy price is very cheap. Nothing should prevent you from buying, borrowing, or downloading it.
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