Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. First Perennial Library edition published 1990, 385pp.
In terms of quality of writing itself, Johnson’s Intellectuals makes for entertaining historical dream. The British author’s intent is to put to test several of the ‘intellectuals’ who exerted cultural and social influence during the Enlightenment period forward to our own time. Johnson writes,
“One of the most marked characteristics of the new secular intellectuals was the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny. How far had they benefited or harmed humanity, these great systems of faith? To what extent had these popes and pastors lived up to their precepts, of purity and truthfulness, of charity and benevolence? The verdicts on both churches and clergy were harsh. Now, after two centuries during which the influence of religion has continued to decline, and secular intellectuals have played an ever-growing role in shaping our attitudes and institutions, it is time to examine their record, both public and personal. In particular, I want to focus on the moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself.”
In this attempt to put the critics of religious morals to the acid test, Johnson begins with Rousseau, highlighting his self-centeredness, sexual perversity (“liked to be spanked” and was a public exhibitionist of his “bottom”), his ironic abandonment of his own children at birth, and his naive political status.
Moving onward, I found a moral failure in the life of the poet Shelly, who emphasized imagination for the transformation of society, but did not possess the imagination to put him in the place of another on a personal level, and hence was a great debtor and thief, adulterer, and truly without compassion.
Marx, I discover, was purely philosophical and academic, disliking the working proletariat, and an exploiter of others. Johnson fills us in on Tolstoy and Hemingway’s sexual infidelities and emotional abuses of their respective spouses, the shaky foundations of Bertrand Russell, and Sartre’s life of sexual and wasteful excess.
In short, much like the Protestant Reformers who preceded and indirectly encouraged the devaluation of all external sources of authority that came later, Johnson engages in a swift, persuasive and admittedly unfair ad hatefully attack on the newly crowned “popes” and “priests” of the Enlightenment. The idea is that if moral and cultural existence can be rooted within the span of the faculties of the human spirit, rejecting for the most part the claims of revelatory guides, how has this panned out practically in the lives of those who lead the charge? What has humanism, based principally on the self-governing use of reason, to say for itself rationally? Has it worked?
Johnson’s point is a good one, though I think his tactics is flawed. Reading Intellectuals is a bit like listening to gossip, which is both unnecessary and necessary. To put the Enlightenment emphasis on the intellect to the test through challenging the moral lives of those thinkers who have had an historical influence is valid; however, Johnson risks a understated misleading notion of concluding that one’s immorality stems directly from