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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky

3.82  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,209 Ratings  ·  152 Reviews
Paul Johnson examines whether intellectuals are morally fit to give advice to humanity.
Paperback, 416 pages
Published May 2007 by Harper Perennial (first published 1988)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,918)
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Sep 03, 2012 Greg rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
Back in 2001 I had an internship at Verso. They are the publishers of some left-wing books. When I worked there I would come in for a few hours a day. I'd get paid twenty five dollars and I'd be given lunch. I was also allowed to take home copies of any books that I wanted. It was a pleasant arrangement while I was taking classes.

One day, probably a couple of months after I started I showed up at the office and one of the real employees pulled me aside and told me that Alexander Cockburn was in
Feb 23, 2011 Szplug rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As other reviews have pointed out, Johnson has selected a mitt-full of left-wing/atheist writers, thinkers, and philosophers and attempted to sully their names and reputations with copious slinging of mud. Each intellectual - and there are some curious inclusions under this rubric - has their (personal) life strained for gossip and innuendo: the resulting sexual shenanigans, neurotic peccadillos, rampant paranoia, unpleasant interactions and general grade-A assholery apparently should serve as a ...more
Jul 04, 2013 Eric_W rated it it was ok
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 t
Frieda Vizel
Nov 13, 2012 Frieda Vizel rated it it was ok
I read every word of this juicy book even though I lost trust in the author very early on. The book reads like a delicious tabloid writeup of the venerated thinkers; sex, drugs, drinking, mental illness, theft, fighting and a plethora of other personal scandal depicted with questionable reliability. If nothing else, this book feeds our personal cravings for schadenfreude. Johnson loses his credibility when the faults he finds in these thinkers - which at times seem quite human and expected - are ...more
Riku Sayuj

Single Quote Review:

“The famous technique of not separating the author from his work which made him* the leading critic of the nineteenth century ignores what should be obvious to anyone upon reflection, that a book is produced by a different person than the one whom we see in his daily life with his strengths and his weaknesses as a man.”

~ Marcel Proust

[ *him - refers to the French critic Sainte-Beuve, who had inspired a school of critics in the nineteenth century, l’homme et l’oeuvre, which d
Mar 22, 2015 Jan rated it it was ok
A disappointing book. Paul Johnson, a Conservative writer for the Spectator, presents a very one-sided picture of Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Brecht, Russell, Sartre, Wilson, Gollancz, Hellman, Mailer, Baldwin, Chomsky and others.

Very condescending and even disdainful with little effort at balance by ignoring their many positive contributions. Johnson is given to sweeping statements; one example: ‘. . . a disregard for the truth . . . marks the true secular intellectual
Dec 15, 2010 Michelle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I finally finished this--it took me quite a while. I found it necessary to do a few chapters at a time, broken up by something else. This book is an amazing, weighty but readable look at the "intellectuals" we've crowned as "experts" in the last few hundred years. Johnson notes the trend of intellectuals seeking to lead humanity to a better place than the priests and religious leaders of an earlier day, and asks the oddly-rarely-mentioned question "How is this working out?" Are we better off for ...more
Apr 28, 2009 Jason rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The three stars I gave this book may be misleading. I didn't like the book at all...but I believe it was entirely accurate.

I initially expected this book to discuss the thinking of the intellectuals therein. However, although Johnson wrote a bit about this, the bulk of the book was basically a catalogue of the vices of these influential writers. In fact, it was too much. I quickly tired of reading about the lies and womanizing. It was not edifying, to say the least. I just skimmed quite a bit.

Erik Graff
Dec 27, 2012 Erik Graff rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Johnson fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
Paul Johnson is a deeply conservative historian who crafts opinionated, but well-written and accessible books. I find much of what he opines, particularly when he approaches the contemporary world, offensive, but that's almost certainly good for me as I'm rather opinionated myself and he often knows more about the particular topic under review than I do. This book tends towards the modern, being a series of ad hominem critiques of intellectuals usually identified as progressive or "Left". The pe ...more
Kuba Zajicek
Jun 04, 2015 Kuba Zajicek rated it did not like it
It is a shame that writers do not get a prize for blowing ass, because Paul Johnson would win every time. Using the private life of philosophers like Marx and Sartre as a relevant factor when considering philosophers' intellectual merit is outlandish. His poor content is unfortunately complemented with mundane language that uses excessive detail whilst describing pieces of information irrelevant to the philosophical ideas it should be dissecting (or at least that is what the introduction promise ...more
Jun 06, 2015 kilimanjaro rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
O idee proastă.

Cam asta a fost ideea: Hai să luăm o duzină de personalităţi ale culturii universale; răscolim adânc miile de pagini de biografie (scrise de alţii), dăm la o parte lucrurile cu adevărat importante şi adunăm apoi mizeriile, bârfele şi cancanurile vremii.
Apoi concluzionăm condescendent că Rousseau era un intrigant meschin, Shelley un exaltat egoist, Marx – un plagiator cu furuncule în zonele ruşinoase, Ibsen – un alcoolic cu înclinaţii pedofile, iar Tolstoi – cartofor afemeiat care
Peter N.
Mar 18, 2015 Peter N. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book that is devastating to many of those that modern thinkers hold in high esteem, such as Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Sarte and Brecht. Johnson knows a lot, has studied a lot, and is willing to call these men (and one woman) what they were: mean, greedy for fame and often money, immoral, hateful towards women and children, and above all persistent liars. Truth for them was malleable, especially when their reputation was at stake.

One reviewer said that Johnson ignored their good contributions,
Dec 13, 2011 Ensiform rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The purpose of this book is to question the moral right of intellectuals over the ages to counsel people on how to behave; to this end Johnson examines several so-called “intellectuals” from Rousseau to Normal Mailer: their private lives, their regard for truth, and their skill in public affairs. It is a fascinating and at times irritating book, made all the more amazing by the fact (never mentioned here) that Johnson, although a profoundly conservative thinker, was a socialist for a part of his ...more
Man Ching

What a strange book. The whole point of being is to trash intellectuals who think that 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 o
Nov 29, 2012 Bernie rated it really liked it
Paul Johnson, the British historian, once heard James Baldwin complain about discrimination. His response: "I said, `look here, Baldwin. If, like me, you've been born-left-handed, red-haired and an English Catholic, there's nothing you don't know about prejudice.'"
Johnson wasn't joking. A former editor of the leftish "New Statesman," Johnson turned conservative in the 1970s and served as one of Margaret Thatcher's speechwriters. But unlike the neocons in the U.S., who were angry, humorless and l
Mar 12, 2012 Dfordoom rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, politics
Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals is a fascinating examination of the reasons we should distrust intellectuals, especially of the left-wing variety.

He looks at a selection of intellectuals from Rousseau to Noam Chomsky and sees some disturbing common patterns. They achieve a certain eminence in a particular field (Bertrand Russell in mathematics, Chomsky in linguistics, Shelley, Tolstoy and James Baldwin in literature) and then decide they are uniquely qualified to refashion civilisation. They t
Brian Goldstein
Apr 20, 2012 Brian Goldstein rated it it was amazing
Magnificent, all the emeperors without clothes, about time these rascals were exposed for the frauds they were!
Douglas Wilson
Apr 20, 2009 Douglas Wilson rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Nov 11, 2014 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of a number of questions Johnson asks about intellectuals is this:
'...the [Lillian] Hellman case raises and important general question: to what extent do intellectuals as a class expect and require truth from those they admire?'
Apparently they expect little in the way of truth since the intellectuals Johnson discusses in detail in this book are almost to a class, liars. If they're not lying about their own histories (most of them seem to rewrite their family histories, and often much of wha
Jun 06, 2014 Realini rated it it was amazing
Intellectuals by Paul Johnson

This is an excellent book.
It is upsetting and it might affect the reader, so a cautionary or warning sign might be in order on the cover somewhere. Like the adult or Paternal Guidance ratings for some films, one such sign would be advisable.
And why is that?
After you read this book, you will not feel the same about Tolstoy, Hemingway, Shelley…a young adult might feel inclined to avoid their books altogether.
Again; this is a great book, even if it has over four hundred
Webster Bull
Apr 03, 2011 Webster Bull rated it really liked it
Not until I had finished “Intellectuals” by historian Paul Johnson did I learn that he is Catholic. This does not surprise me; rather, it gratifies me. I admire Johnson even more now that I know. My friend Mike alerted me to “Intellectuals.” As a token of friendship, I picked up the book and started reading. “Intellectuals” has shifted my world-view more than any single book since “My Life with the Saints” by Fr. James Martin, which triggered my decision to turn Catholic three and a half years a ...more
Jan 29, 2012 Bob rated it really liked it
I was prompted to re-read this after the Shelley biography, since Johnson bases his chapter in this largely on Holmes. The premise, you may know, is a chapter each on a sequence of literary and philosophical figures who presumed to tell society how to restructure itself and a look at whether the way they conducted their own lives was in accordance with their principles.
You won't be too surprised to hear that it often wasn't though a few of the lesser 20th century figures seem guilty of no worse
Nov 17, 2011 Roger rated it really liked it
A series of biographies of famous intellectuals showing how they are not trustworthy or reliable. It is likely to provoke strong reactions from most readers, either positive or negative. It starts with Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Tolstoy and carries well into the 20th century. The book does not develop a thesis, rather the thesis is unstated and obviously shapes the choice of material. I felt that much of the material was strongly slanted to the negative. It got even a little depressing at times to ...more
Steve Anderson
Aug 10, 2013 Steve Anderson rated it it was amazing
This book impacted me far more than I thought it would. I began reading it after perusing many varied reviews - most of which were not glowing. Nevertheless, here is my take away: we all make mistakes, some unbelievably wretched. When God is removed from our lives a vacuum remains, and what replaces our moral compass tends to take us places we never intended to be. We all know some who have overcome enormous obstacles and have earned our admiration. Johnson shows me some who others feel merit my ...more
SJ Loria
Sep 10, 2013 SJ Loria rated it it was ok
A moral critique and ad hominem assault of Intellectuals, thereby allowing oneself to dismiss the ideas proposed by such said thinkers. Look, I like ad hominem arguments as much as the next guy. They are fun, but they aren’t intellectually sound. Perhaps this book has taught me at least that much, and at least puts me on guard for the intellectual pitfall in my own point of view. It’s so easy and gratifying to attack the character of the people you don’t agree with, but ultimately, does a discon ...more
Cynthia Wood
Jun 05, 2013 Cynthia Wood rated it it was ok
Shelves: political
The book is one giant double-barreled ad hominem. Paul Johnson crafts (admittedly engaging) short, concentrated chapter summarizing the lives of various Western intellectuals for the purpose of discrediting Western intellectualism. Unfortunately, his logic is a bit off in more than one way.

Firstly, his selection of who counts is distinctly biased. If there was a choice of more than one intellectual of a given stripe, the personally nasty, libertine, or just plain unappealing were chosen every ti
Tim Lockman
Jul 29, 2012 Tim Lockman rated it it was ok
An interesting exploration of the less-flattering sides of some major intellectuals. It's worth a look, but Johnson brings a heavy-handed ideology to his subject. If you read this book, be sure to also have some more balanced background on these characters. If you don't, you may end up thinking that they never did *anything* right. I think his basic point is well-taken: people who are really smart in some ways, and therefore highly respected in the academy, are often really stupid in others; bew ...more
Kuba Zajicek
Jun 04, 2015 Kuba Zajicek rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Its a shame that writers do not get a prize for blowing ass, because Paul Johnson would win every time. Using the private life of philosophers like Marx and Sartre as a relevant factor when considering philosophers' intellectual merit is outlandish. His poor content is unfortunately complemented with mundane language that uses excessive detail whilst describing pieces of information irrelevant to the philosophical ideas it should be dissecting (or at least that is what the introduction promises) ...more
Feb 01, 2013 Scott rated it liked it
This book opened my eyes to the lives of many movers and shakers of history, though the method of "short biography followed by exploration of sexual deviancy" got pretty tired after a while.

Particularly interesting were the chapters on Rousseau, Marx, and Tolstoy. The later chapters didn't really pique my interest at all.

I will say that I was not a little bit upset to find out that while Johnson rips into the various intelligentsia for their sexual infidelity in marriage, he himself had an aff
Aug 19, 2013 Daniel rated it did not like it
Johnson likens himself to a modern historian of sorts but unfortunately leaves out all the relevant information and tends to lean on minds that were much greater than his own so that he doesn't have to cope with his own cyclical, smoldering internal dissonance. The send-off in this "Soap Opera" portrayal of the juicy details spread around the water cooler is to not trust the intellectuals that have shaped the face of human morality. Nay, shun them into the dark forest and thump ye bibles! Conser ...more
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Paul Johnson works as a historian, journalist and author. He was educated at Stonyhurst School in Clitheroe, Lancashire and Magdalen College, Oxford, and first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. He has also written for leading newspapers and magazines in Britain, the US and Europe.

Paul Johnson has published over 40 books incl
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“It was part of Rousseau’s vanity that he believed himself incapable of base emotions. ‘I feel too superior to hate.’ ‘I love myself too much to hate anybody.” 3 likes
“Shelley’s love was deep, sincere, passionate, indeed everlasting-but it was always changing its object.” 2 likes
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