|Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, Revised Edition, by Paul Johnson, Harper Perennial, 2007.
In G.K. Chesterton’s mystery “The Scandal of Father Brown,” Father Brown comments on the wasted life and potential of a prominent writer, declaring that, “You don’t need any intellect to be an intellectual.” This quote could be the tagline for Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals. This book is a collection of essays on various literary figures and self-described intellectuals, many of whom have been elevated to the status of demigods in the popular critical pantheon. About two-dozen such personages are addressed in this book, most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Edmund Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, and Lillian Hellman. One of Johnson’s chief aims is to demythologize these figures, illuminating not just the flaws in their thinking, but also the disastrous personal lives of the intellectuals, their hypocrisies, and the ways that their work and personal lives hurt both those closest to them and the rest of the world.
It is important to be precise when understanding Johnson’s definitions. Johnson is definitely not attacking people who are smart or traditionally educated. Indeed, Johnson’s own intelligence and extensive literary knowledge is evident with every page he writes. Johnson’s target is not the brainy, or academia, or even those who belong to a specific political group (although most of his subjects are hard left-wingers). Johnson takes aim against individuals who put ideas over people. Johnson defines “intellectuals” as a relatively recent phenomenon. Since the rise of intellectual secularism in the eighteenth century, many men of aptitude and literary skill have argued that the use of “reason” and new philosophies of life and behavior can solve the ills of the world. Unfortunately for the world, as Johnson never tires of noting, intellectuals have tended to leave a trail of devastation in their wake, even as they toil to promote their own glory.
This is not an angry book. It is an indignant book, at times even righteously indignant. Johnson could conceivably have filled this book with rants and furious denunciations, but his tone is always calm, measured, and he frequently makes a point of being fair. In some instances, he even professes to be an admirer of some of these intellectuals, such as when he declares himself to be a fan of Ibsen’s plays. A fierce, furious book could conceivably have been great fun to read, but it would have been all the easier for critics to dismiss. As it is, by asserting that the acclaim that many intellectuals have received has been largely undeserved, Johnson has opened himself up to a flood of criticism. The most recent edition of Intellectuals includes a selection of negative criticism regarding this book, mainly by people who believe that the figures in this book ought to be above reproach, or who believe that personal behavior should not be a factor in ranking the legacy of an intellectual figure.
The essays in this book attempt to demythologize the targeted intellectuals, exposing some as frauds and fools, others as brazen liars, still more as utterly toxic to those closest to them, and most as unworthy of veneration or even serious respect. Johnson is holding a barbeque, and the main course is sacred cows. Of course, these intellectuals have never been revered by everybody, and Johnson takes pains to illustrate exactly which types of people contributed to the making of the intellectuals’ reputations.
These essays are not hatchet pieces. Johnson’s theses are not centered around arguing that the intellectuals described here were horrible, obnoxious egotists with no regard whatsoever for the happiness or well-being of other human beings, although several of the figures in this book certainly appear to fit that description. Johnson seems to have some respect for some of subjects, even some affection for one or two, and thinly veiled disgust for many more. The intellectuals in this book are not portrayed as evil incarnate, but as deeply flawed individuals whose theories about the world and society hurt a lot of people. This is revisionist history, seeking to reveal disturbing facts about major figures that are too often ignored, or worse, defended.
Is Johnson being unfairly harsh towards his subjects? It is certainly possible. The purpose of biography is to describe what figures from the past were actually like and how they affected the world around them. Perhaps what Johnson does here is not demonize these figures so much as humanize them. Then again, there is much to be said about being charitable towards those one disagrees with, and never speaking ill of the dead is a sound policy. And yet…. The characters in this book, and their ideas, have hurt a lot of people, and historians have a responsibility to speak the truth, even when expressing such opinions is unpopular. The author’s bias aside, there is one definite aspect of the book that could have used improvement: Intellectuals does have a thorough collection of citations, but Johnson uses a lot of obscure anecdotes and references in order to make his points, and a few of them are not cited. In order to keep the level of discourse above reproach, thorough presentation of evidence is essential.
Can you separate a major figure’s life from his work? Johnson argues that one cannot. If a prominent intellectual engaged in morally dubious behavior or treated towards those closest to him like dirt, how can one respect their prose? In his essay “The Heartless Lovers of Humankind,” a summary of the main points expressed in Intellectuals, Johnson writes,
“I believe the reflective portion of mankind is divided into two groups: those who are interested in people and care about them; and those who are interested in ideas. The first group forms the pragmatists and tends to make the best statesmen. The second is the intellectuals; and if their attachment to ideas is passionate, and not only passionate but programmatic, they are almost certain to abuse whatever power they acquire. For, instead of allowing their ideas of government to emerge from people, shaped by observation of how people actually behave and what they really desire, intellectuals reverse the process, deducing their ideas first from principle and then seeking to impose them on living men and women.”
Johnson has declared that, “people must always come before ideas and not the other way around.” That, in his eyes, is the great crime of the intellectuals who are featured here. He does not deny their intelligence, only the ways that they applied their intelligence. By subjecting their lives to critical scrutiny, it appears that Johnson intends to place their ideas and writings under a more analytical light as well. By stripping away the moral foundations of the men, he questions their ideas.
One has to be careful when reviewing a book like this. I personally am no fan of most of the intellectuals featured in his book, with the major exceptions of Tolstoy and Hemingway. Having an active dislike for the writings– and philosophy– of most of the intellectuals featured here, I have to say that a certain part of me enjoyed seeing Shelley, Marx, Russell, and Sartre depicted as womanizers who refused to take responsibility in their lives, or learning that the author of The Second Sex spent her life as the manager of her paramour’s ever-expanding harem, or discovering the extent to which Sartre served to inspire and inflame genocidal regimes in Southeast Asia. Nearly every intellectual presented here comes across as being morally bankrupt.
But is this wholly fair or wise? I never cease to be disgusted by pundits who airily dismiss the work G.K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc because they claim that they were anti-Semitic or that they engaged in extramarital affairs, charges that are patently false. I can thoroughly understand how some fans of these figures might deem Intellectuals to be mere character assassination, but as Johnson illustrates in his coverage of Lillian Hellman and other figures, the popular media, academic, and political establishment often deliberately covered up the details about several intellectual figures. As Johnson observes, from the late eighteenth century onwards, self-styled intellectuals attempted to give themselves moral authority by smearing the cultural and scholarly life of Western civilization, which for centuries had been led by the Church. Many of the figures in Intellectuals have attacked the character of several popes and the behavior of the Church, using utterly spurious allegations. Perhaps turnabout is fair play, especially if Johnson’s analysis of the intellectuals is more accurate than that of the intellectual’s critique of the Church.
Johnson writes with such confidence and verve that he propels his historical narrative forward with surprising power. Intellectuals illustrates a side of history that has often been glossed over in the textbooks. We need to understand how ideas originate and how they affect society. Intellectuals illustrates just how little we know about the recent past, and emphasizes the importance of being highly critical towards those who think they know better about everything than the average person.