- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Revised edition (May 1, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061253170
- ISBN-13: 978-0061253171
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky Revised Edition
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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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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?
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!
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."
In my podcast, Christian With A Brain, this book was a tremendous resource when I discussed the Limits of Logic. When our leaders experiment with the governing of people, when they construct plans for societal design, it would be wise to first place an ear upon the chest of humanity, hear their heartbeat, feel their pain, look into thier eyes, then begin, and end - with them.