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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky Revised Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0061253171
ISBN-10: 0061253170
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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.

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Product Details

  • 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 (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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