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Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (P.S.) Paperback – May 2007


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Product details

  • Paperback: 385 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Revised edition (May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061253170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061253171
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.4 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 93,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Laura on 11 Feb 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Very small print and minimum line spacing, which can be a bit uncomfortable when reading. Otherwise, it is a fun and interesting book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 64 reviews
249 of 264 people found the following review helpful
Devastating Stuff 31 Dec 2007
By Prairie Pal - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is the kind of book that is either going to inspire or infuriate you, but it should provoke valuable discussion and thought in either case. Johnson's thesis is quite simple: the revolutionary thinkers whose ideas have shaped intellectual history over the past 250 years were, for the most part, lousy human beings. These were not not common or garden variety jerks but personalities whose flaws were so manifest that they must call into question the value of the theories they generated.

This is an interesting proposition. Does it matter that Peter Sellers, the world's greatest comedic actor, was a vile neurotic, that Marilyn Monroe was a goddess on screen but a drug-addled manipulator in everyday life, that Winston Churchill, who saved civilization during World War II, was also an alcoholic egomaniac? Probably not. But Johnson asks a deeper question: if a thinker cannot live out his own principles, can these ideas have any real merit? His book convinces us that there is a real connection between the rancid lives lived by intellectuals and the disasters their ideas produced.

For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is adored by educational theorists and his ideas are entrenched in the curricula of teachers' colleges, despite the fact that he serially abandoned every one of his children. Karl Marx was bourgeois to the core and seems to have exploited the only working-class woman he ever knew: paying her starvation wages, impregnating her and forcing her to abandon their child. Johnson lacerates the behaviour of these prominent figures but more importantly shows how their shabby personal values foreshadow the social harm their works engendered.
122 of 142 people found the following review helpful
Bombastic, but the core message resonates 29 Aug 2008
By Drew Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Unfortunately, this book suffers from the sacred cow syndrome. Johnson discredits so many of the secular world's heroes, that many will not allow his voice to come through the din of their ad hominem accusations. It really is a shame because they cry foul without looking at the big picture.

At first glance, this work appears to be using an Ad Hominem attack against mostly secular thinkers. But at its core, it has a much more profound message. These 'attacks' are actually case studies on the validity of the ideas these intellectuals are passing on to our society.

His point is this: If these intellectuals' ideas are going to affect the quality of our lives, we must inspect the quality of these intellectuals' lives. This is not ad hominem, it is looking for the proof in the pudding. If the thinkers are putting forth ideas on the mating habits of the Blue Whale, then looking at their personal life is indeed ad hominem. But if our moral framework is being influenced by a great thinker, then it is perfectly acceptable to look at his or her morality.

I will say that Johnson is very caustic in his critiques (and hilarious at points), but I believe if you read critiques of non-secular moral advocates who were caught with inconsistencies between their private and public lives, the critiques are at least as biting.

Finally, I don't believe most skeptics have read the whole book. The last line of the book is actually where the most clarity is shared.

"Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas."

In my podcast, Christian With A Brain, this book was a tremendous resource when I discussed the Limits of Logic. When our leaders experiment with the governing of people, when they construct plans for societal design, it would be wise to first place an ear upon the chest of humanity, hear their heartbeat, feel their pain, look into thier eyes, then begin, and end - with them.
53 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Critic misses the point 4 Nov 2010
By Uncle Rick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Most reviews of this book are positive, but those which are critical have, I believe, missed the point.

It is easy to accuse Dr. Johnson of ad hominem attacks on these leftist icons. However, his main thesis, as pointed out by others, is that in their own lives they manifestly embraced completely different principles. They clearly did not believe the ideas they were advocated to the rest of us. In some cases -- Bertolt Brecht in particular -- it is clear that they simply profited personally from promoting ideas favorable to the state or to other powerful interests. In other cases -- Marx, for example -- we see the resentful expressions of people who had vaulting opinions of themselves and believed the world owed them a lavish living for sharing their genius with us.

The ideas themselves -- communism and socialism -- have, of course, been thoroughly dissected, debunked and disproved in the course of the 20th century. Unfortunately, they have not been entirely discarded; they are still revered by the current crop of intellectual elites.

Incidentally, is is technically correct that there are conservative intellectuals. However, the term, like "progressive", has been largely co-opted by the political Left, so that its basic meaning has been supplanted by an ideological one.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Intelligent but not Wise 19 Mar 2014
By David Hoffman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.

The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.

Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.

Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.

These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Byshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.

Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.

Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unrealism of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.

I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Read it twice. 17 July 2012
By Fiat Lux - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"This book is an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct it's affairs." This first line in the Acknowledgments prepares you for what is to come. The great irony Mr. Johnson exposes in Marx is poetic: "In all his researches into the iniquities of British capitalists, he came across many instances of low-paid workers but he never succeeded in unearthing one who was paid literally no wages at all. Yet such a worker did exist in his own household. Read about Helen Demuth who worked in the Marx household as a maid for 45 years and never made a penny. "[She was] the only member of the working class that Marx knew at all well, his one real contact with the proletariat" (p. 80, '88 ed.).

Another book something like this is "The Philosophers" by Ben-Ami- Scharfstein (0-19-505927-1). He tend to over-psychologize at times, but it's an interesting read.
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