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?