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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky
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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky

3.8 of 5 stars 3.80  ·  rating details  ·  913 ratings  ·  119 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 January 1st 1900)
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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...more
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...more
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
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...more
Frieda Vizel
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
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
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...more
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...more
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 3 of 5 stars  ·  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
Webster Bull
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
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
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...more
Cynthia Wood
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...more
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...more
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...more
Tim Lockman
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
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...more
Steve Anderson
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
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
Jacob Aitken
Sure, Johnson has an axe to grind, but facts are facts. His thesis is simple: the aforementioned avant-garde thinkers, so beloved of the Left today, championed the "ideal" of humanity while despising the particular person.

Rousseau: fathered numerous illegitimate children and shipped them off to different orphanages, where Johnson speculates they likely died of neglect. And Rousseau's commitment to the abstract is consistent: if one interprets "the general will" and the "contrat social" in terms...more
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...more
Brian Goldstein
Magnificent, all the emeperors without clothes, about time these rascals were exposed for the frauds they were!
Douglas Wilson
A devasting critique of the intellectuals who have "shaped the modern world". One after another, Johnson examines the disconnection between the great works and ideals of these world shapers on one hand, and their personal lives on the other. It's a gruelling catalogue of hypocrisy, ego, broken relationships, dishonesty and spectacular moral failure. A difficult but engrossing read. Written before the fall of the Soviet Union, communism seems to be Johnson's ultimate opponent, and he makes a conv...more
Chase Austin

"Beware of Intellectuals" could easily be the title of this excellent case study by Paul Johnson of intellectuals from the late 18 century up to the twentieth century. Johnson focuses on common themes or character traits as he studies each of these fascinating individuals and examines amongst other things the moral and judgmental credentials of these intellectuals that dare to tell mankind how to conduct itself. Johnson exploits the personal stories and histories of men and women who could be c...more
Ryan Holiday
Turns out the uber-intelligent are, or can be, or just are, a-holes. Johnson covers a diverse group of intellectuals from Marx to Chomsky. Behind the public face of the intellectual is usually a deeply inconsistent, strange and sometimes appalling individual. That isn't to say their work should be discounted, but it does color it in an important way. You cannot and should not separate the two. Edmund Wilson's socialism rings hollow when you hear that he didn't pay income taxes for 10 years. Rous...more
This book should be named The Other Side of Left-Wing Intellectuals. It is very misleading to just say Intellectuals because it made me expect that it would talk about prominent thinkers and would analyze their thoughts and their influences, etc.

Well, Johnson does discuss their thoughts, but more importantly, he discusses the personal stories of these people and show how hideous, immoral, cruel, hypocrite, liars they actually are. After reading this book, I think I can never really accept these...more
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
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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...more
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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.” 1 likes
“Partly by accident, partly by instinct, partly by deliberate contrivance, he was the first intellectual systematically to exploit the guilt of the privileged. And he did it, moreover, in an entirely new way, by the systematic cult of rudeness. He was the prototype of that characteristic figure of the modern age, the Angry Young Man.” 0 likes
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