Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals

What a strange book. The whole point of being is to trash intellectuals who idealizes the pursuit of freedom (either in behavior, in intellectual pursuits, from society). Paul Johnson admitted that it was unfair to use the private lives of individuals to judge the strength of their thoughts, but nonetheless he spent the entire book documenting the deficiencies of men who talked big and lived meanly. The quality of the men never matched the beauty of their vision, prose, or poetry.

The futility of such an exercise is noted early, in the chapter about Shelley. Johnson admits that this cad was a wastrel who had no compunction about writing mean letters detailing the failures of his parents while concurrently asking for money. Shelley used people, seeing his family as nothing but a source of income and women no more than a means for physical pleasure. Naturally, he thought himself liberal, dispensing with archaic institutions of monogamy. He expected his wife to accept his mistress to share their apartment, but he graciously extended the same privilege to his wife (whom apparently complained about this arrangement.)

Regardless, all this is peripheral: Johnson thinks Shelley wrote beautifully, and his poetry moved Johnson. Johnson writes,

The truth, however, is fundamentally different and to anyone who reveres Shelley as a poet (as I do) it is deeply disturbing. It emerges from a variety of sources, one of the most important of which is Shelley’s own letters.”

Great. But why should the gap between artisanal accomplishments and the empty lives of artists be so surprising, in an age when starlets, athletes, politicians, authors, musicians, and entertainers behave as if they were competing for the favor of the Borgias? Johnson already conceded the point that he can appreciate the artistry, if not the artist.

There was one high point in the book, though. Johnson destroyed Karl Marx on both a personal and professional level. In this instance, it seems that there are elements in Marx’s personality that might have directly resulted in the shoddy intellectual quality of his work. Marx made a better short form than long form writer; the long form exposed Marx’s deficiencies as a researcher and investigator. Das Kapital contained a number of misuse of evidence. Marx did do a spectacular job of digging up dirt on his enemies, though.

In a coda, Johnson links 2oth century atrocities to both secular intellectuals ignoring atrocities committed in their name and to the social milieu they created that promoted nihilism (namely in excesses of Communist regimes.)  It seems to me a simpler case that these mass murderers were ambitious, ruthless, and disposed to murder even before they encountered post-modern philosophy. As much as I detest social relativism, post-modernism, and religious dogma, I can’t fault these ideas as causing mass effects. I can, however, fault the men who, upon gaining power to commit atrocities, cloak their acts in the trappings of a recognizable philosophy.  To suggest that terrorists or dictators  valued life until reading a book seems to be placing the cart before the horse.

In the end, I do agree with Johnson in that it is so disappointing that philosophers rarely reach the ideals they espouse. So what else is new?

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5 comments
  1. florensful said:

    that’s an awesome review

  2. bob said:

    I agree to some extent. It seems to me that the point Johnson is making is interesting because of the contradictory and hypocracy thereof. But I feel that the outcome that these ‘intelectuals’ produce should be criticized and studied rather than there private lives. The ultimate work that have been produced are of significant value regardless the way in which it came to be.
    Taking art or any end-product as an simple example; one appreciates the beauty, creativity and briliance when looking at a piece of art before admiring or buying it, not constantly thinking what the artist did after his ‘working hours’ but appreciating it for what it is. There are other intelectuals that does not share the same demeaning feature.

    I would rather find a biography of each ‘intelectual’ of more value as it would allow one to have a more objective insight into how the environment conditioned the outcome of ideas.

    As said, I do find the hypocracy interesting but not of many significance. Good book, well written though. Worth a read and a good topic; ‘ideas versus the individual.’

  3. konastephen said:

    So you don’t think that outcome of thought systems of these “intellectuals” on their own lives is more important than the impact of their ideas on the lives of other people? I think the point of Johnson’s book is that we place far too much weight on the words of people who are despicable when those words are published by “important” publishers and respected and discussed in unbelieving academia. We wouldn’t do business with any of them. We wouldn’t hang out or let our children hang out with them but somehow we think that their ideas are worth living by. I found this book extremely liberating. It broke the last link in the diabolical chain between my mind and the lifeless worldviews of the Lame Stream.

    • I think you misread both Johnson and me. Johnson’s point is that the ideas of intellectuals arise from their social and internal milieu, not that they conform their own lives to their world view. This is important when tracing the provenance of ideas, since we can write a narrative that describes their historical development and give us some perspective and context. Where Johnson and I differ is in emphasizing whether it matters to bring in details of the personal lives of these intellectuals in considering the strength of their ideas.

      Johnson, and I suppose you, imagine that a these thoughts are akin to water from a poisoned well; no good can come from a contaminated source. I think that is the very definition of an ad hominem attack, which I find to be no approach at all in rational discourse. The whole book is an attempt to smear the ideas of the intellectuals by smearing the intellectuals. That is the point; the identity of Johnson’s subjects are of the secular mode. Johnson could have filled a companion book by documenting the excesses and hypocrisies of leaders who use more traditional (and religious) ideas to justify pogroms.

      It seems strange to me that you would think it is more important to look at the lives of the intellectuals than it is on the impact of their ideas. We know a great many of their ideas appeal others because they speak to a liberation of selfishness from social mores. That is bad. It does not surprise me that selfish people might think selfish thoughts. I happen to disagree with Johnson because he feels that we need to discuss personal lives, in addition to body counts and a forensic analysis of an intellectual movement, to discuss how some idea went bad. My only point is that a great many wholesome thinkers also conclude that a high body count is needed in the course of implementing their own ideals about how to improve the world.

      On a personal note, I had a friend with whom I had a great many similar discussions. It is neither here nor there, but he is an evangelical Christian. He seems sincere in his beliefs and, as one might imagine, takes a side similar to Johnson’s. He excels at pointing out the failings of intellectuals who hold world views opposite to his own. Often, I raised the simple point that any idea can be used to justify the sword. This man is now a medical doctor, and as I’ve stated, a Christian. However, on several occasions, I have seen him point out that there are types of people who do not deserve medical care. Believe it or not, this point does not bother me as much as it should, mostly because I sensed that he spoke from a place of frustration and would not act on his thought.

      I happen to believe everyone actually feels this way about some things. The thought goes, “The world would be a better place if only I could get rid of this group of difficult people.” It did not surprise me at all that this Christian man so quickly lapsed into this way of thinking, as soon as he realized he needed political expediency (in the sense that his frustration is with other “irresponsible” people and how their annoying behaviors might be controlled). Any student of history realizes that lofty ideas give narrative force to wars, but that the bitter truth is that wars are about living space, resource acquisition and resource allocation. Philosophies that justify these wars are merely window dressing, not to be taken too seriously. It is from this point that I note that religious and intellectual leaders are using the same playbook, when they speak of high-minded reasons for their aggression. In other words, I think that philosophies are hijacked to gloss over gory excesses, rather than serving as an engine for evil. Given a sufficiently large canon, one can interpret it to justify both turning the other cheek and putting infidels to the sword (and this applies to Christians as well as Muslims.)

      As for your other arguments, I am not sure that you broke any chains. None of the arguments you cite are rational ones; they are emotional ones that lend might lend rhetorical power to a more rigorous argument, assuming the language is of high-caliber. If anything, you simply substituted one chain for another, all based on the relative probity of the writers. The whole point of rational argument is that the character of the writers matter less than the idea; even Stalin and Pol Pot would be correct had they said “The world is round it, and it revolves around the sun.” Surely you can see that there is a difference between the person and what he writes or say?

      You do realize that Johnson picked easy targets? Hume, Erasmus, Popper, and other lions of Enlightenment, secular humanist and modernist thinking were somehow ignored. He picked low hanging fruit. I think your argument that somehow you had been force fed these authors by publishers and academia and was somehow freed shows that rational discourse is not for everyone. Confusing the strength of argument with strength of character is a mistake. Taken to an extreme, when one thinks that the voice matters, why stop at rejecting intellectuals and their ideas once they fail some test of personal morality? Why not tarnish all that they are associated with, because clearly the ideas lack the force to instill a sense of right and wrong (you know, like in those Christian pastors and priests who swindle, commit adultery, and abuse children?)

  4. JP said:

    The late social thinker and philosopher Alan Bloom once wrote that few intellectuals every try to apply their own systems of thought to themselves (Nietzsche was the exception). For example, Freund once wrote rather famously that there is no pure pursuit of the Truth as all humans are not inspired by love of Beauty or Truth; instead, they are inspired by irrational urges and repressed feelings. Freud could not apply this system of physchology to himself, wrote Bloom; otherwise, his own theories would be invalid.

    Likewise, recent history is replete with examples of intellectuals who demand that the “Masses” live by the diktats of the intellectuals while they themselves are excused. Edmund Wilson, a brilliant Marxist literary man of letters refused to pay any income taxes for a decade; Hemingway, probably one of most vocal proponents of artistic truth was a sociopathic liar; Lillian Hellman wrote many essays concerning literary freedom, but spent her last decades destroying any person she saw as a competitor. These and other intellectuals Johnson takes to task. Brecht and Satre preached existential freedom, while they never once refused to toe the Marxist lines. And the collateral damage done to relatives, especially female mistresses could fill an entire cemetary. Rousseau refused to support his bastard children and former lovers he seduced. Ditto for Shelly and Hemingway. Marx, never once did a day of manual labor in his life. But, he attacked others who did. And the list goes on.

    Everyone loves to read about the sexual exploits of the so-called virtuous Christians. The hunt for moral hypocrites is an art form and in many ways is an industry unto itself. Yet, in an age where the exploits of Falwell, as well as certain homosexual priests is well documented, not much is ever written about the moral failings of our so-called intellectuals. Yes, Johnson can be petty in some ways (see his treatment of the late German film producer Bruno Fassbinder. Fassbinder was a brilliant and decadent artist. But, his Marxists leanings were shallow in my opinion). But overall, Paul Johnson did the work other reporters and historians failed to do. In too many cases, a historian will write off an intellectual’s failings under the guise of “humanity”. Moral hypocrisy amongst our intelligentsia is rarely if ever brought up.

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