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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to…

Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (1988)

by Paul Johnson

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Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Other than saying I loved reading this book, while also being exasperated by what felt like increasingly dishonest authorial motivation, I'll let two of the critical blurbs contained in the volume speak for me. (I've no clue how to rate this with stars.)

From Publishers Weekly: "These pummeling profiles of illustrious intellectuals are caustic, skewed, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engaging."

From Christopher Hitchens: "On every page there is something low, sniggering, mean, and eavesdropped from third-hand."
  KatrinkaV | Apr 14, 2019 |
I'm giving this title 3 stars, not because it isn't a good read -- it's very lively and entertaining. I'm just not sure why Paul Johnson wrote it, unless he had a lot of material left over from other books and wanted to work it up into something. That famous writers and thinkers down through the ages have behaved badly isn't exactly news, at least not to historians.

His selection of subjects is a little uneven. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx were definitely important intellectual and cultural forces, many of the other writers profiled here (Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman) seem more like products of existing cultural trends, rather than creators of them.

To sum up, Intellectuals is good gossipy fun, but I'm not sure the author succeeds in making a point. ( )
  AstonishingChristina | Jun 26, 2018 |
Can one invalidate ideas by pointing out the inconsistencies between the ideas and the lives of the famous philosophers/writers/thinkers with which the ideas are associated ? Paul Johnson believes this is so.

You learn about our cultural heros/icons: all their sexual shadows, vanities, obsessive acts, lies, self-centered/ego-maniacal behaviors, inabilities to care or love or have any human feelings. The book is more a slander sheet than a set of arguments. But if you want to know the sins of Rousseau, Hemingway, Ibsen,Russell, Brecht, Sartre, and more, read on. I did.

BTW Johnson starts to salivate with joy when he talks of the conservative thoughts of some of these folks. It seems that he wants to obliterate everything that has happened in the past 200 years and return us to a free market, traditional society.
Fun to read. ( )
  kerns222 | May 25, 2018 |
Just look at their own lives and ask yourself: are these people competent to run my life after they've so thoroughly ruined their own? This is Johnson's thesis, especially as it applies to the credibility of their ideas in making legislative and social justice decisions. ( )
1 vote KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
Paul Hollander, in a review of Intellectuals by Paul Johnson defines "intellectual" as a western concept connoting "preoccupation with and respect for ideas but not for ideas as sacred doctrines." (Society, Se/Oc 1989, p. 97)

The positive embodiment of this ideal is the "fearless social critic, inquisitive and iconoclastic interpreter of ideas, selfless promoter of the common good." To some extent, the role of intellectual is self-defined; there are no specific requirements for the job, unlike that the cleric. In Intellectuals, Johnson denounces the replacement of the cleric by the intellectual. According to Johnson, the cleric played the role of intellectual prior to the decline of religious institutions in the 18th century. He contends this is a "dangerous" trend. In his book he attempts to display the vast gulf between progressive ideas and personal morality.

His selection of intellectuals for study is peculiar. Hemingway, for one, may have been a genius, but he certainly was not an intellectual of the caliber of Rousseau or Marx or Tolstoy who are also included. Nor are Hellman, or Chomsky or Gollancz. Johnson obviously suffers from the delusion that those who dispense moral advice need to follow their own prescriptions. Since when have clerics been any more upright than others? I would also argue that there are many religiously trained intellectuals writing today. Johnson's selections seem to have been chosen more for their apparent antagonism to capitalistic society.

While eminently readable, if you like gossip, Johnson spends little time on the philosophies of his victims, emphasizing instead their apparent lack of personal morality (at least morality that Johnson supports).

Johnson's flaw is attributing too much power to intellectuals. For example, he writes of Rousseau's distrust of capitalism and private property, declaims Rousseau's enormous influence on society, and then warns us of his dangerous thinking. Oh really? I haven't noticed any great decline in our desire for accumulating wealth or property. Even the National Review decided this book was too gossipy and replete with overblown generalizations. But a little slander is fun too.

( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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To my first grandchild Samuel Johnson
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Over the past two hundred years the influence of intellectuals has grown steadily.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060916575, Paperback)

Conservative historian Paul Johnson wears his ideology proudly on his sleeve in this often ruthless dissection of the thinkers and artists who (in his view) have shaped modern Western culture, having replaced some 200 years ago "the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind." Taking on the likes of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, and Noam Chomsky in turn, Johnson examines one idol after another and finds them all to have feet of clay. In his account, for instance, Ernest Hemingway emerges as an artistic hero who labored endlessly to forge a literary style unmistakably his own, but also as a deeply flawed man whose concern for the perfect phrase did not carry over to a concern for the women who loved him. Gossipy and sharply opinionated, Johnson's essay in cultural history spares no one.

Does it really matter that Henrik Ibsen was vain and arrogant, that Jean-Paul Sartre was incontinent? In Johnson's view, it does: these all-too-human foibles disqualify them, and other thinkers, from presuming to criticize the shortcomings of society. "Beware intellectuals," he concludes (though, given the subjects of his book, it seems he means intellectuals only of the left). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice." Whether one agrees or not, Johnson's profiles are frequently amusing and illuminating, as when he suggests that the only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid, except in room and board, for her labors. --Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:09 -0400)

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This volume presents a portrait of the minds that have shaped the modern world. In a series of case studies, Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sarte, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillan Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tyan, Noam Chomsky, and others are revealed as intellectuals both brilliant and contradictory, magnetic and dangerous. The author examines the rise of the intellectual as a sort of secular seer and moral arbiter, a role once filled by the priest or soothsayer. These intellectuals, in the author's opinion, promote themselves as possessing the moral authority to transform society, a claim that the author disputes.… (more)

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