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on June 30, 2014
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 Western world. It's been said that 'even the best among men are at best still just men.' This book goes far in putting that into focus and context for anyone seeking an answer back to Postmodernism's intelligentsia. The pioneers, heroes, and demigods of progressive free thinking were far more flawed than your professor ever told you. Johnson aims to correct that.
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Turns out the uber-intelligent are, or can be, or just are, a-holes. Johnson covers a diverse group of intellectuals from Marx to Chomsky. Behind the public face of the intellectual is usually a deeply inconsistent, strange and sometimes appalling individual. That isn't to say their work should be discounted, but it does color it in an important way. You cannot and should not separate the two. Edmund Wilson's socialism rings hollow when you hear that he didn't pay income taxes for 10 years. Rousseau's unforgivable treatment of his children (abandoned them at an orphanage for no reason) makes it hard to stomach his criticism of society.

Intellectuals can be read as a strong exhortation against the selfish life of the ambitious intellectual. How did these great men justify the horrible things they did (which unlike soldiers were never matters of self-preservation or protecting the innocent)? They claimed their big ideas necessitated it. Their commitment to their "genius" allowed them to treat people this way. But what good is writing a book people read long after you're dead if you have to hurt, betray and abuse the people around you--people who, like you, are alive right now?
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on August 17, 2015
rather shocking! I am only on Hemingway - middle of book - but enjoying every bit of it. What a wild and eye opening approach to this subject -- and something you would never get if you stuck to one-guy-at-a-time. Pretty amazing, really. It helps me forgive myself for not being a world-known author! LOL!
I just finished his Modern Times book (history of last century) and it was EXCELLENT, so I thought I'd try another Johnson. What a treasure!
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on March 19, 2014
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. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.

The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.

Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.

Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.

These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Byshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.

Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.

Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unrealism of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.

I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.
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on January 29, 2013
Like most, I am familiar with the blood-drenched consequences of the doctrines of Rousseau, Marx, and their like, but I never paid much attention to them as individuals.

Paul Johnson exposes them as thoroughly disgusting, sociopathic leeches in their personal lives. It is possible to be an obnoxious person and still do great good in the world. However, it is gratifying to discover that some of those who have been nursemaids to so much evil are themselves petty, dirty and evil. I wouldn't want any of them as tenants, neighbors or house guests.
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on September 18, 2012
This book made me realize that 40 years ago I made the right decision when I left the republican party and became a libertarian. The protagonists....for lack of a better word.....should be studied in schools, if only, to learn that people who tell you how to live your life are not the best examples you want to follow. These folks had a profound effect on civilization and not for the good either. I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks that their "god" may have feet of clay after all.
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on October 10, 2014
An honest and often scathing analysis of arrogant, aggressively secular, left-wing intellectuals who presumed to lecture ordinary people. Johnson gives credit where it is due - for example Tolstoy is a writer of genius but rubbish as a political, social or historical analyst. As for Rousseau, the man was unmitigated scum and should be exposed as such.
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on October 12, 2015
Thank God for Paul Johnson, an excellent author. x
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on February 16, 2017
Paul Johnson delivers well documented insights into who his chosen "Intellectuals" really were as everyday people.
Shocking, confronting but eerily consistent with today's erratic, toxic and self serving behaviour of Donald Trump.
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on October 7, 2015
Great read to the open minded reader who can connect with real word, not the made up persona of modern lost souls. These bios explain some of how we lost our way being lead by the lost.
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