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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,658 ratings  ·  203 reviews
Paul Johnson examines whether intellectuals are morally fit to give advice to humanity.
Do the private practices of intellectuals match the standard of their public principles?
How great is their respect for truth? What is their attitude to money? How do they treat their spouses and children - legitimate and illegitimate? How loyal are they to their friends?
Rousseau, Shelle
Paperback, 416 pages
Published May 2007 by Harper Perennial (first published 1988)
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3.83  · 
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 ·  1,658 ratings  ·  203 reviews

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Aug 31, 2012 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
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Jan 11, 2017 rated it did not like it
This is not a book about why each of the profiled intellectuals profiled are worthy of being remembered, but it's mostly how they are flawed human beings. The author would pick an intellectual, barely explain why they are important today, and then dwell on the persons foibles to a churlish degree making the listener lose sight of why the person is of interest today.

Does the author really know that Marx had "anger is heart" but didn't really act on it? Sometimes it can help to understand the arti
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
Peter Jones
Mar 18, 2015 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,
Mar 03, 2010 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
Dec 09, 2008 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
Oct 12, 2010 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
Frieda Vizel
Oct 17, 2012 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
Mar 12, 2012 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
Feb 01, 2014 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
Erik Graff
Jul 09, 2010 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
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
Kuba Zajicek
Jun 04, 2015 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
Apr 28, 2009 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.

Brian Goldstein
Apr 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Magnificent, all the emeperors without clothes, about time these rascals were exposed for the frauds they were!
Jun 06, 2014 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
Dec 13, 2011 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
Nov 29, 2012 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
Noah Goats
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
According to Hume, Rousseau was “a monster who saw himself as the only important being in the universe,” and as I read this book it soon became clear that the same could be said about most of our public intellectuals, or at least the ones Paul Johnson has chosen to profile here.

This collection of biographical essays is a series of brutal hatchet jobs where Johnson briefly praises the achievements of these famous minds before getting down to what he really wants to talk about: what terrible, self
May 17, 2018 rated it did not like it
This is a thoroughly unpleasant book that tells us more about the author than about the intellectuals he writes about. And his references to women seem to show a contempt that is as bad as anything he lays at the door of others. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the history of thought and its great figures, but nothing in this book was really new to me. I wish I hadn't read it and don't recommend anyone else to.
Jun 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a great book. Paul Johnson is one of the best modern historians in terms of writing ability. This book takes a look at Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sarte, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz and a few other intellectuals. Almost all of them are terrible people behind the scenes. While they exult in telling the world how it should be, their own lives are in ruins and almost all of them treat people as disposable objects.
Rousseau was a "mentally
Aug 06, 2010 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
Oct 14, 2014 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
Jan 29, 2012 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
Skylar Burris
In this intriguing volume, Johnson choose ten of history's most prominent intellectuals, including Karl Marx, Doestevsky, and Rousseau. He discusses the lives and theories of these selected individuals, as well as their influence on history, but his work is tied together by an overarching theme. He constantly returns to the terrifying power of ideas and sees in the intellectuals a group of out-of-touch thinkers who love humanity in the abstract but despise or neglect the individual man. Because ...more
Steve Anderson
Aug 10, 2013 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
Nov 18, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow was this author bias. Talk about anti-left He seemed obsessed with the cleanliness of the intellectuals. Based on the fact many of them were living in eras without running hot water or decent sanitation it is hardly so they were not the cleanest. He also liked to stress how miserly many were.

A lot of the descriptions of their lives is based on facts without balance. That is the good and the bad or skirting over the good. All the intellectuals were leftist and none were conservatives. Howeve
SJ Loria
Sep 10, 2013 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
Tara Brabazon
Jul 07, 2018 rated it did not like it
What the hell have I just read? Really. No. Really. I do not care who intellectuals had sex with. I really don't.

Tell me about ideas. How are great ideas created?

If I wanted The Sun to tell me about intellectuals, then I'd read The Sun.

I don't ...

I'm putting this aside for now. Truth be told, I haven't touched it in months.

The premise of this book was intriguing, and I was excited to read it. But the actual book... It's like the author has a hate-on for each one of these people. So, everything he shares is shaded with his disdain.

I wasn't looking for his disgust or for every reason he thinks these people should be considered less than. I was looking for a fairly objective take on what these individuals contributed & the resulting po
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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
“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.” 6 likes
“Descartes’ dictum: ‘There is nothing so absurd or incredible that it has not been asserted by one philosopher or another.” 4 likes
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