Book Review – Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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5 responses to “Book Review – Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson

  1. >Now that I have spent a little time exploring Dan’s web pages, I have come across his review of Intellectuals. As the person who gave Dan the book (and who endorses its conclusions), I would like to post a brief comment on each point covered in his review. But I would first say that I am pleased that Dan takes ideas seriously enough to absorb material that may not be enjoyable for him to read, and then takes the time and trouble to comment. Ideas matter, and I am glad to have a chance to participate in a respectful discussion about Johnson’s book.(1) The only economist profiled in Intellectuals is Karl Marx, and there is little doubt about his economic program. So I take Dan’s first point as more of a warning about excessive generalizations than as a specific criticism of this book.(2) I agree with Dan’s truism that no one is without faults. But the people profiled in this book in every instance either gained fame by writing extensively about public policy or used their ancillary fame as writers or artists to make public policy prescriptions which would be widely heard. The reason that their private actions do matter and should be examined is that the public who would be affected by their prescriptions need to know if there is signficant hypocrisy involved. And so we read in Intellectuals about Berthold Brecht’s sweetheart arrangement with the East Germans, undisclosed to the public at the time, while Brecht wrote glowingly about the German Democratic Republic and allowed them to use his prestige to legitimize their existence –while they trampled without restraint on the human rights of the ordinary citizens.(3) In this book Johnson says nothing about the American welfare system or about the advisability of expanding public programs. Accordingly, I don’t see Dan’s third point as a criticism of the book. However, one could infer from the Johnson book that, because intellectuals as a group have generally endorsed government interventions as a means of improving society, and because Johnson warns against listening to intellectuals in the realm of public policy, that he is against such government interventions. That is in all likelihood true, and it can also be inferred from some of Johnson’s Op-Ed writings in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. However, that would be a part of a larger debate that is outside the scope of this particular book.(4) Dan’s fourth comment seems to be directed at the use of the word “intellectual” as a pejorative to describe those who are highly skilled in language and the arts — and whose views tend to be left of center. It is certainly true that there have been many gifted writers and artists whose views have been right of center. For example, Edmund Burke in the 18th century and more recently novelist Tom Wolfe (and even Paul Johnson himself, a prolific and encyclopedic historian). But to me, these tend to be the “exceptions that prove the rule.” For the most part, intellectuals ahve tended to take positions well to the left of center.(5) I found myself gratified that someone took the time and trouble to reveal the truth about these particular individuals to a wider audience, intellectuals who together have had an outsized influence on the development of Western society. True, 12 samples are not necessarily definitive. But certainly the ideas of Marx at the very least were highly influential. The “Black Book of Communism” attributes roughly 100 million deaths in the 20th century to the ideology of communism. Using Marx as an example, what if his followers had known more about his personal life — that he had abused his governess by not paying her and that he had little regard for the individual human beings that his writings professed so much regard for in the abstract? All Johnson says in his conclusion is simply: Beware the ideas of intellectuals. He is putting a warning label on them. Given their track record, I see that as a public service.

  2. >Has anyone read the Papacy by Paul Johnson? If so could they be so kind to tell me what it is about

  3. >Here are Paul Johnson’s latest comments about “intellectuals” (not the book, the people). Excerpt: “My definition of an intellectual is someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.” — KEN VK——————————-Hating America, Hating Humanity Yup, that’s what they do — especially the intellectualsPAUL JOHNSON Anti-Americanism is a phenomenon which, though common and ubiquitous, is difficult to explain because it is illogical, irrational, contradictory, and mysteriously primitive. A good deal of it is parroting. And, oddly enough, a parrot has recently emerged in England which may cast light on the subject. This bird had been owned by a long-distance truck driver who emigrated, bequeathing it to a bird sanctuary. There it behaved well; but there were exceptions. In succession, a local mayor, wearing his chain of office, a police inspector, and a female vicar — all visitors to the sanctuary — were subjected to four-letter verbal abuse. The manager of the place eventually concluded that the parrot had been trained by its owner to abuse authority figures, and recognized them by something distinctive in their dress. The United States, in a lawless and dangerous world where the U.N. cannot impose order — in fact sometimes makes disorder worse — has become a reluctant authority figure, a stepfather or foster parent to a dysfunctional and violent family. As such, it is resented and abused, all the more so since it wears the uniform of its role, the ability to project military power in overwhelming strength almost everywhere in the world. The fact that, in logic, America’s critics may be grateful to a nation which, in the past as in the present, has been essential to their liberty and well-being by resisting and overcoming totalitarianism, or suppressing threats to civil society by terrorism, makes no difference to the resentment; may even intensify it. The people among whom anti-Americanism is most rife, who articulate it and set the tone of the venom, are the intellectuals. They ought logically to hold America in the highest regard, for none depend more completely on the freedom of speech and writing which America upholds, or would suffer more grievously if the enemies against whom America struggles were to triumph and rule or misrule the world. Indeed, many of the most violently anti-American intellectuals benefit directly and personally from America’s existence, since their books, plays, music, and other creations enjoy favor on the huge American market, and dollar royalties form a large part of their income. But it is a fact that intellectuals are fundamentally and incorrigibly antinomian. To them, authority, especially if legitimate and benign, is the enemy-in-chief, to be resisted instinctively as a threat to their “freedom,” even if such authority ultimately makes it possible. You might think that some of these intellectuals — British, French, German for instance — who have been particularly abusive of the U.S. would renounce their American royalties. But not one has done so. When I put this point to a leading author, famous alike for his American following and his anti-American views, I was sharply told: “I regard such gestures as childishly quixotic.” Not only among intellectuals but among a much wider circle, anti-Americanism has a tone of outraged morality which strikes me as peculiarly perverse. It is notable among those, particularly in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, who profess concern for the well-being of the world (as opposed to the national interest of their countries). These “lovers of humanity” are peculiarly anti-American. Yet what is the United States? It is, so far, the world’s only unqualified success in building on the largest possible scale a multiracial society. Every culture in the world is represented in the U.S., usually in considerable numbers. To take in the peoples of the world is not only a U.S. tradition but a current and future reality. Some of the most successful U.S. communities — the Koreans, the Lebanese, the Vietnamese, and the Cubans — are quite recent creations. Immigration from all over our planet is a major factor in pushing America’s population over the 300 million mark and, according to the latest projection, will raise U.S. population to 420 million by mid-century. America comes much closer to the realization of world brother-and-sisterhood than that corrupt and soulless abstraction, the United Nations. Indeed the United States is a practical and on the whole prosperous and contented celebration of the essential unity of the planet. To hate America is thus not to hate a particular nation as such, but to hate humanity. And of course it is a melancholy fact that many intellectuals do hate the human race. My definition of an intellectual is someone who thinks ideas matter more than people. In this confused spasm of irrationality which is anti-Americanism, there is a process of personification which has currently settled on the necessarily lonely figure of George W. Bush. He is much hated among the European intelligentsia, and there are frequent calls for his prosecution as a war criminal, especially among those who took the mass atrocities of a Saddam Hussein or a Pol Pot with equanimity, not to say indifference. And the reason for this is simple, and much to Mr. Bush’s credit: To an anti-American, he is the archetype, the quintessential American. He is Mr. America, America personified, even caricatured. He brings out all the envy, fear, and emotional anxiety which lies at the root of the anti-American disease. He is good-looking, upright, a Texan, a man of wealth and self-assurance. He is not by nature talkative, does not articulate abstract thoughts or concern himself with fine distinctions. He sees the world in black-and-white terms, with clear and absolute differences between good and evil, right and wrong. He worships God. He is a Ten Commandments man. He does not meet trouble halfway and is slow to anger, but when roused his anger is terrible and enduring. His personal life centers around the family, an institution European intellectuals view with unease and marked qualifications, not to say distaste. He does not dance effortlessly on the sacramental turf of the campus, or fit into the smoke-filled culture of the basement café, or find books axiomatically preferable to the saddle. Does he read poetry to relax, or study philosophy as a hobby, or worship Picasso? No. All this adds up to a terrible indictment. Mr. Bush enables the more bigoted and inveterate anti-Americans — those for whom anti-Americanism is a culture, almost a way of life — to concentrate their feelings on a real-life actual hate figure. Bush is exactly what the clinical-case anti-American believes the average American is, must be, and, in the weird logic of demonology, ought to be. The Americans elected him. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? He is America. Anti-Americanism and Bush hatred are part of the same paranoid emotion. But the obverse is also true. In a difficult time, Bush is America’s natural leader. Mr. Johnson’s latest book is George Washington: The Founding Father.

  4. >Thank you for forwarding that. I like some of his ideas, but only if you replace the word “intellectuals” with something else: maybe “socialists”, “communists”, or “fundamentalists”. I think Paul Johnson has been tainted by false intellectuals. Marx and company used the term to gain credibility, but were not actually intellectuals. So many of his conclusions sound a bit silly.Ideas matter more than people? I’m not sure his definition means anything real. Intellectuals pursue ideas because of how they impact people. This is not so strange: Ideas are not important without people; and without ideas, people are simply animals. Neither can exist without the other, and comparing their importance is like apples and oranges. Does his definition mean that Bush is an intellectual for deciding that the idea of Freedom is worth more than the lives of the soldiers? Of course there are some anti-Americans, but the vast majority of American intellectuals are hard-working patriots. French intellectuals of the 18th century may have been anti-American, but that is irrelevant as an indictment of today’s intellectuals. Who are these intellectuals he is talking about? Academics? Ph.Ds? Lobbyists? Think tanks? Only the left wing ones? Criticizing certain aspects of America, working toward its improvement, lobbying, and speaking are all part of how America came to be great. These activities represent some of the roles of politicians. So obviously this should not be generally classified as anti-American behavior. Finally, debasing intellectuals as “anti-American” furthers a bad prejudice. It conditions people to distrust or dislike intelligent discourse, and this does the nation a disservice.

  5. >Gosh,i agree with Ken Von Kohorn and some of Dan's comments. I really admire Paul Johnson's olympic feats of historicity.He makes history readable & fun. I bought History of the Jews. But i find paul defending religion,relating to Moses like he was a real sane person who got hold of the decalogue which catapulted Man into spiritual slavery i.e.the ist 4 commandments were punishable by death. Paul brushes aside all the ridiculous putative miracles like they don't matter. If they didn't occur,which is so patent as to be axiomatic or does that make me an "intellectual". But in Intellectuals paul points up the hypocrisy of the famous thinkers & creators yet if the Jews lie about the miracles (the bait) then how are we to have any credence in their history? And how long did Abraham live and how about those 9 hundred plus years of the rest of the patriarchs? Oh and Bush was, is a jerk. He was reviled and hated because he hid behind his christianity & born-again patina.He got us into an unwinnable war.He was an embarrassment in speech & character.He & reagen made an unlikely daisy chain of political buffoonery. But god, can paul write. I do feel inveigled into reading the history of jews by his incadescance on the history of the american people. But then his panegyric on Bush gives me pause. frank notaro

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