In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson takes a close look at some key figures of modern times whose thoughts and writings have had a huge effect on people’s thinking for a long time, right down to today. Johnson examines the personal lives of these famous men (Lillian Hellman is the only female intellectual in this book), and asks, did they live up to their own dicta and ideals?

I’m up to chapter 4, Henrik Ibsen, and the answer so far is a resounding, “NO!” They all seem to have outscrooged Scrooge in meanness, bitterness and contempt for their fellow man.


The chapter on Karl Marx shows that Marx was no scientist, and a very sloppy scholar if not an outright dishonest one (“Marx had an ambivalent attitude to facts”), and yet…

The notion that Marxism is a science, in a way that no other philosophy ever has been or could be, is implanted in the public doctrine of the states his followers founded, so that it colours the teaching of all subjects in their schools and universities.

Johnson points out that these intellectuals are responsible for a great deal of violence and misery, whether intentionally or not.

The undertone of violence always present in Marxism and constantly exhibited by the actual behaviour of Marxist regimes was a projection of the man himself… That Marx, once established in power, would have been capable of great violence and cruelty seems certain. But of course he was never in a position to carry out large-scale revolution, violent or otherwise, and his pent-up rage therefore passed into his books, which always have a tone of intransigence and extremism. Many passages give the impression that they have actually been written in a state of fury. In due course, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung practiced, on an enormous scale, the violence which Marx felt in his heart and which his works exude.

Rousseau and Pol Pot

[On Jean-Jacques Rousseau] The original social contract oath for his projected constitution for Corsica reads: ‘I join myself, body, goods, will and all my powers, to the Corsican nation, granting her ownership o me, of myself and all who depend on me.’ The State would thus ‘posses men and all their powers’, and control every aspect of their economic and social life, which would be spartan, anti-luxurious and anti-urban, the people being prevented from entering the towns except by special permission. In a number of ways the State Rousseau planned for Corsica anticipated the one the Pol Pot regime actually tried to create in Cambodia, and this is not surprising since the Paris-educated leaders of the regime had all absorbed Rousseau’s ideas. Of course, Rousseau sincerely believed that such a State would be contented since the people would have been trained to like it.

Sounds like an anticipation of Brave New World and the soma drug, as well as an echo of Plato’s ideas.

Ibsen and the ideas of the day

Johnson quotes Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes on Ibsen:

‘[he stood] in a sort of mysterious correspondence with the fermenting, germinating ideas of the day… he had the ear for the low rumble that tells of ideas undermining the ground.’

Johnson continues,

Moreover, these ideas had an international currency. Theatregoers all over the world were able to identify themselves or their neighbours with the suffering victims and tortured exploiters of his plays. His assaults on conventional values, his programme of personal liberation, his plea that all human beings should have the chance to fulfil themselves, were welcomed everywhere.

“Politics will do all.”

Johnson on Rousseau:

The political process, and the new kind of state it brings into being, are the universal remedies for the ills of mankind. Politics will do all. Rousseau thus prepared the blueprint for the principal delusions and follies of the twentieth century.

Intellectual hubris

The strongest impression I get from reading these fascinating essays is the danger of intellectual hubris – being convinced that one’s ideas are true, that ideas are more important than human beings and human relationships, and that one has a God-given duty to express and propagate those ideas. Here, for example, is Ibsen begging the King of Sweden Norway for money:

I am not fighting for a sinecure existence but for the calling which I inflexibly believe and know God has given me… It rests in Your Majesty’s royal hands whether I must remain silent and bow to the bitterest deprivation that can wound a man’s soul, the deprivation of having to abandon one’s calling in life…

and here Ibsen writes to Brandes, “one-time friend”,

Friends are an expensive luxury, and when one invests one’s capital in a calling or mission in this life, one cannot afford to have friends… Many spiritual ambitions have been crippled thus.

These “great men” seems to have fallen out with just about everyone who got to know them. The chapter on Shelley is subtitled, the Heartlessness of Ideas, a notion that would make an apt subtitle for the entire book.

After numerous accounts, from contemporary letters and diaries, of Rousseau’s meanness (he fathered several children but forced his wife to abandon them as newborns to the local hospital and foster home where most of them died young), insolence and ingratitude, Johnson laments that there’s a sucker born every minute.

Since Rousseau was vain, egotistical and quarrelsome, how was it that so many people were prepared to befriend him?… he was the first intellectual systematically to exploit the guilt of the privileged….

Rousseau’s reputation during his lifetime, and his influence after his death, raise disturbing questions about human gullibility, and indeed about the human propensity to reject evidence it does not wish to admit. The acceptability of what Rousseau wrote depended in great part on his strident claim to be not merely virtuous but the most virtuous man of his time. Why did not this claim collapse in ridicule and ignominy when his weaknesses and vices became not merely public knowledge but the subject of international debate? … extensive display of the evidence [of his weaknesses and vices]… made very little difference to the regard in which Rousseau and his works were, and are, held by those for whom he has an intellectual and emotional attraction. During his life, no matter how many friendships he destroyed, he never had any difficulty in forming new ones and recruiting fresh admirers… to provide him with houses, dinners and the incense he craved.

Johnson is not merely pointing out foibles, which might be easily dismissed; who among us does not have them? He is saying that the weaknesses and vices of these intellectuals reveals that many of their ideas were false when we examine the nitty-gritty of what these extraordinary people actually wrote, both in their public works and in their private letters and diaries, and how they actually led their lives: false, either in the sense of not grounded in actual practice, not arrived at by calm, rational thinking or logic, or not proven to be true by the daily repeated actions of their proponents, or false in the sense that they did not and do not lead to the results claimed (fulfilment, peace, plenty, liberation, whatever).

He is also saying that the acceptance and adulation of these people, both contemporaneous and today, shows that the majority of people are uncritical or attach themselves to ideas or people for emotional rather than logical reasons. I’m reminded of a recent Guardian article Do supporters of Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo really know what he stands for?  which begins, ‘If Liu Xiaobo’s politics were well-known, most people would not favour him for a prize, because he is a champion of war, not peace.’ People hear only that Liu was a “hero” of Tiananmen Square and that he is imprisoned by the Chinese authorities, and for many, that is enough: he must on the side of the good guys.

Is an inability to get along proof of evil?

One could argue that the mere fact that Ibsen, for instance, was a miserable and lonely old so-and-so, the more so as he grew older, does not disprove the truths expressed in his plays. Is Johnson assuming that to have value as a human being, a man needs to be a mensch, chipper, friendly, warm, supportive of friends and family? Is this true? In the following passage on Ibsen, I think Johnson is skating on thin ice. Referring to the aforementioned letter to Brandes, Johnson writes

This bleak and revealing letter exposes, as with the other intellectuals we have been examining, the intimate connection between the public doctrine and the private weakness. Ibsen was saying to humanity: ‘Be yourselves!’ Yet in this letter he was in effect admitting that to be oneself involved the sacrifice of others. Personal liberation was at bottom self-centre and heartless. In his own case he could not be an effective playwright without ignoring, disregarding and if necessary trampling others. At the centre of Ibsen’s approach to his art was the doctrine of creative selfishness. As he wrote to Magdalene Thoresen: ‘Most criticism boils down to a reproach to the writer for being himself… The vital thing is to protect one’s essential self, to keep it pure and free from all intrusive elements.’

Johnson interprets Ibsen’s precept, together with the other evidence of Ibsen’s personal quirks, as meaning an essentially “self-centred and heartless” philosophy. But is this the only possible interpretation? In almost all societies (including in families), there is a more or less strong collectivist streak, a tendency to try to maintain a group “norm” and to pull into line anyone who seems to be escaping the circle. Should a creative and original individual in such a situation compromise his or her creativity or originality for the sake of group or family harmony? Isn’t this an admonition to “go along to get along”, with the assumption that getting along is the higher virtue? Does not Tolstoy, another intellectual Johnson dissects, describe, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a man who “continually battles with his family and servants, demanding honesty above the water and food needed to sustain him”?

Ayn Rand fleshed out this battle between the individual and the group, in psychological, moral and economic terms, both in her novels (especially The Fountainhead) and in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Not all the intellectuals in this book come out as selfish monsters (although most do!): George Orwell, for instance, is praised:

when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Orwell not only gave moral support to the Republic, as did over 90 per cent of Western intellectuals, but – unlike virtually all of them – actually fought for it…. Characteristically, Orwell wanted to go to Spain first and see the situation for himself, before deciding what he would do about it…. Orwell had always put experience before theory… Experience, confirmed by what happened in the Second World War… also taught him that, in the event, human beings mattered more than abstract ideas. Orwell never wholly abandoned his belief that a better society could be created by the force of ideas, and in this sense he remained an intellectual.

To sum up, the book seems to be about the tragedy of intellectuals, which in a way is the tragedy of the 20th century: starting with the recognition that ideas greatly affect and shape people’s beliefs and actions, intellectuals then went further and began to dream of utopias, made possible by social engineering and mass education. The tragedy was that many of these ideas were developed without scientific rigour, were too often misguided and failed to sufficiently consider consequences. In short, the tragedy is of intellectual hubris, something that Christians particularly have warned against, because they can see the dangers inherent in any thinking that fails to see its own limitations because it fails to recognize a superior power beyond itself (c.f. the character Weston in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction trilogy, and see also this article on “Scientism, Secular Humanism and Hubris”).