This volume presents a portrait of the minds that have shaped the modern world. In a series of case studies, Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sarte, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillan Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tyan, Noam Chomsky, and others are revealed as intellectuals both brilliant and contradictory, magnetic and dangerous. The author examines the rise of the intellectual as a sort of secular seer and moral arbiter, a role once filled by the priest or soothsayer. These intellectuals, in the author's opinion, promote themselves as possessing the moral authority to transform society, a claim that the author disputes.
I've read Intellectuals three times. It would be worth the time for its style alone, or for its concluding caution: "One of the principle lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity is--beware intellectuals." This is apt advice today.
The book takes the form of 13 chapters, the first 12 of which are brief biographies of intellectuals. There is a short description of what that person wrote and their philosophies; there follows a TMZ style spate of gossip about their private lives and how they did not live up to their own philosophies, the inference being that their private lives made their philosophies meaningless. Don’t get me wrong; these people were all morally deficient by just about anybody’s standards: lying, abusive, egotistical, jealous, lazy, mean with money, cruel to their families, violent, irresponsible and adulterous. Does this make everything they wrote worthless? I don’t think so. Are all leftist thinkers so morally bankrupt? I doubt it. Are conservatives more apt to be morally pure? The American political scene proves that isn’t true. Are conservatives more apt to put people before ideas? The Tea Party proves that isn’t true, either- of course, those folks are the very antithesis of intellectuals.
The best part is when I look into Mr. Johnson’s own life. He is a historian and author, a conservative who served in Margaret Thatcher’s government. That is was a Thatcherite makes me think he might not put people ahead of ideas. He was full of himself enough to tell James Baldwin not to moan to him about being discriminated against because he was black because he, Johnson, was a left-handed, red haired Catholic, which meant he knew all about prejudice! And best of all, Johnson had an extramarital affair of many years standing, an affair which included having his mistress spank him. Considering that sexuality was one of the main things he condemned his intellectuals for, I found this ironic in the extreme.
I must say that I found the book very interesting. It’s quick reading; if you want some brief biographies of these people, along with the juicy gossip, go for it. But while Johnson certainly made his point that these people did not live up to their own philosophies, I’m afraid that he didn’t manage to convince me that this is a leftist trait.
The positive embodiment of this ideal is the "fearless social critic, inquisitive and iconoclastic interpreter of ideas, selfless promoter of the common good." To some extent, the role of intellectual is self-defined; there are no specific requirements for the job, unlike that the cleric. In Intellectuals, Johnson denounces the replacement of the cleric by the intellectual. According to Johnson, the cleric played the role of intellectual prior to the decline of religious institutions in the 18th century. He contends this is a "dangerous" trend. In his book he attempts to display the vast gulf between progressive ideas and personal morality.
His selection of intellectuals for study is peculiar. Hemingway, for one, may have been a genius, but he certainly was not an intellectual of the caliber of Rousseau or Marx or Tolstoy who are also included. Nor are Hellman, or Chomsky or Gollancz. Johnson obviously suffers from the delusion that those who dispense moral advice need to follow their own prescriptions. Since when have clerics been any more upright than others? I would also argue that there are many religiously trained intellectuals writing today. Johnson's selections seem to have been chosen more for their apparent antagonism to capitalistic society.
While eminently readable, if you like gossip, Johnson spends little time on the philosophies of his victims, emphasizing instead their apparent lack of personal morality (at least morality that Johnson supports).
Johnson's flaw is attributing too much power to intellectuals. For example, he writes of Rousseau's distrust of capitalism and private property, declaims Rousseau's enormous influence on society, and then warns us of his dangerous thinking. Oh really? I haven't noticed any great decline in our desire for accumulating wealth or property. Even the National Review decided this book was too gossipy and replete with overblown generalizations. But a little slander is fun too.
His selection of subjects is a little uneven. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx were definitely important intellectual and cultural forces, many of the other writers profiled here (Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman) seem more like products of existing cultural trends, rather than creators of them.
To sum up, Intellectuals is good gossipy fun, but I'm not sure the author succeeds in making a point.
You learn about our cultural heros/icons: all their sexual shadows, vanities, obsessive acts, lies, self-centered/ego-maniacal behaviors, inabilities to care or love or have any human feelings. The book is more a slander sheet than a set of arguments. But if you want to know the sins of Rousseau, Hemingway, Ibsen,Russell, Brecht, Sartre, and more, read on. I did.
BTW Johnson starts to salivate with joy when he talks of the conservative thoughts of some of these folks. It seems that he wants to obliterate everything that has happened in the past 200 years and return us to a free market, traditional society.
Fun to read.