Paul Johnson approaches a very interesting topic: he inspects the lives of 12 intellectual giants starting with Rousseau (1712-78), and compares their teachings with their behaviors.
His premise is a bit awkward. He states that “the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key factor in shaping the modern world”, and that “seen against the long perspective of history, [this] is in many ways a new phenomenon.” He claims that these intellectuals are distinguished by their willingness to forgo tradition and faith, reinventing society from first principles. This of course assumes that traditions and faiths themselves were not reinventions of society from first principles.
He maintains a common theme throughout the biographies: intellectuals are leftist egomaniacs who promote political agendas under an inappropriate guise of truth, virtue, and humanitarianism.
I had a hard time putting this book down, but not because I enjoyed it. Johnson offers a counterpoint to some generally held perspectives. But in the end, I felt his arguments unconvincing. Most of the implications Johnson draws from his biographical examples are inappropriate in my view.
Some specific criticisms:
- Talking about the advantages and disadvantages of competing political government systems does not make someone a leftist or a socialist. Philosophers and political theorists should be expected to be prolific in these topics. Because of this, numerous examples may exist where an author talks favorably about characteristics of socialism, for example. Quoted in isolation, these statements can be misleading, and do not comprise a valid insight into the author’s personal political agenda.
- A person should not be held to a perfect standard of honesty and virtue even if they publicly discuss the philosophy of truth and virtue. With great renown comes a volume of historical criticism to reference—focusing on the criticism is not likely to paint a completely honest picture.
- Promoting the expansion of public social welfare programs does not run contrary to American capitalist democracy—public education and social security are obvious examples. The expansion of public programs may be leftist, but it is misleading to label it as communist or socialist.
- Johnson uses the label “Intellectuals” to mean those political and social thinkers that have foregone hieratic cultures to promote their own moral or ideological innovations. By this definition, his thesis that Intellectuals are audacious liberals is then true by tautology. A more appropriate use of the label would reveal that conservative and religious scholars, scientists, lawyers, and a large number of other people would quickly require Johnson’s thesis to be abandoned.
- 12 examples do not make a general truth. More than that, implying that Intellectuals are somehow bad because of what they said and how they lived is morally questionable. Cultural intolerance, religious evangelism, and inherited class elitism have sparked the lion’s share of global violence in recorded human history. Audacious liberals founded America.
In summary, I’m left unsatisfied. I feel like Johnson has a deeper thesis left unrevealed. He stands in judgment over these 12 intellectuals, but fails to complete his thought. What is his real point? I follow his criticisms, but I don’t see that he is offering any remedy. I feel like Johnson secretly wants to promote hieratic culture under the same guise of truth, science, and virtue.