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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  1,007 ratings  ·  128 reviews

A fascinating portrait of the minds that have shaped the modern world. In an intriguing series of case studies, Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tynan, and Noam Chomsky, among others, are revealed as intellectuals both

Paperback, 385 pages
Published May 1st 2007 by Harper Perennial (first published 1988)
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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
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
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
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
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
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.

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Peter N.
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,
John Martindale
This is a tome of the moral failings, lies and hypocrisies of some of the secular saints and heroes of the left. I think it was a bit long and repetitive, because, we'll most of these liberal intellectuals were gifted individuals who were also vain, egotistical, hedonistic, addicts, freeloaders, pathological liars, thieves, violent, sexually immoral and cruel jerks who "loved humanity" but hated and treated every human being they came in contact with like garbage.

Occasionally Johnson points out
Ali Khan
When I started reading this book, I was charmed. The little bits of often scandalous information about the 'intellectuals' was delightful..

However, the feeling wore off quickly as I progressed and was able to feel more than curiosity behind those delightful facts. It was nothing less than the hatred towards those intellectuals that was evident. Most of the information so painfully gleaned from sources must be true but I couldn't help doubting the context of the cited passages. That was due to th
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
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
John Wise
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
I never finished this one, but think I may read another chapter or two as interest in particular individuals comes up. As other reviewers have noted, this is less "intellectual" than the title suggests. Looking at the disconnect between ideals espoused and lives led is fascinating and worthwhile, but dismissively treating the ideas these individuals put forward while seeming to revel in the very real bad character that they had grows tiring quickly and is less meritorious. Nevertheless, puncturi ...more
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
Brian Goldstein
Magnificent, all the emeperors without clothes, about time these rascals were exposed for the frauds they were!
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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.” 2 likes
“inside the angry man a fearful one cowered.” 1 likes
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