Intellectuals (or Talking Heads) by Paul Johnson

Intellectuals (From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky)Intellectuals by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The violent collapse of the ecclesiastical caste precipitated by the French Revolution has given rise to the secular intellectual armed with their scintillating rhetoric and dazzling display of scholastic aptitudes; these social, cultural elites have become guardians of cultures and devised moral and ideological innovations, thus replacing the ancient regime of the priestly caste. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals lays bare the human frailties of these beneficent intellectuals – ranging from Jean-Jacque Rousseau to Leo Tolstoy, to Henrik Ibsen to Ernest Hemingway, and to Noam Chomsky – and invites us to question the duplicity of these intellectuals that contradicts what they preached for the sake of humanity.

Intellectuals have traditionally proclaimed themselves to be liberals, torch-bearers of fraternity, equality, liberty since they became new potent oracles of societies dictating modes of life and modus operandi of political, social, and cultural systems. However, they are actually bound to the canons of external authority and to the inheritance; that is, the intellectuals are and were by no means free spirits as they profess themselves to be. They are the substitutes for the pagan gods and the elites of Prometheus, who stole the numinous fire for humankind into the bargain under the pretext of shaping our attitudes and institutions and of prescribing us panacea for the social ills.

However, many notable intellectuals who have influenced the arts and shaped our modes of thinking were deficient in rectitude toward their kin, families, friends, and others in their everyday life. To illustrate, Rousseau was an absolute egoist, a brilliant self-publicist, tending to equate hostility to him with hostility to truth and virtue as such. He disdained women of low birth, such as seamstress, chambermaids, and shop girls, while he claimed to love people of all walks of life. In fact, this trait of egoism can be also found in the figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great English poet known for his proclamation that “the poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A sublime egoist with a strong moralizing bent, Shelley assumed that others had to applaud his decisions and when they failed to do so up to his expectation, he was quick to display a sense of outrage. And there was also Ibsen, who changed the social thinking of his generation and that of posterity by preaching the revolt of the individual against the ancient regime of inhibitions and prejudices. He did not want to help others, let alone his own family, for richer he became, the less inclined he was to make any contract with them.

To encapsulate, Intellectuals serves as a literary stethoscope to examine the moral and judgmental credentials of select intellectuals most known to us throughout the modern western history. However, this is not a book to slander their intellectual contributions to the enrichment of culture and society on the whole by revealing their personal history. Rather, it is to show us readers a peril of effaced humanity undermined by the importance of ideas as held by most intellectuals, for ideas – or ideology – were their new gods or new mammon. They put ideas before their families, friends, and people for the sake of perfection of the arts, politics, or society. Moreover, so many intellectuals have jumped on the bandwagon of liberalism in favor of careerism. It is this hypocrisy that Johnson wants to bring to light in Intellectuals. And I think this book is one of the must-haves we should keep on our bookshelves to discern true intellectuals who practice what they preach, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or George Orwell from those who are no more than learned careerists or demagogues or just talking heads of abstract ideas.


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Stephanie Suh

I write stuff of my interest that does not interest anyone in my blog. No grammarians, no copy editors, no marketers, no cynics are welcome.

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