Paul Johnson the historian wrote a terrific little book called Intellectuals, which examines the lives of the leading thinkers in Enlightenment history and finds them grossly wanting, by the standards of normal people and even by their own standards. Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sarte, Victor Gollancz, and Lillian Hellman each get a chapter; each of them turns out to be despicable.
Enlightenment fans usually hate this book, with the most common retort being: What does it matter how they lived their private lives? It is their ideas that count. My counter-retort is: Why should we listen to anyone who has not managed to exemplify the goodness of their ideas by living them out? Since reading Johnson’s book I’ve tried to be diligent about asking this question of everyone who claims to have something to teach me, whether it be about personal holiness or patriarchal families or biblical courtship or involvement with the culture or submitting to authority. Some pass the test; many do not.
Although I thought Johnson’s book was terrific, I don’t think I could stand to read it again. It uses a mountain of sordid details to drive the point home, but once you get the point there is no benefit (and much danger) in continuing to wallow in the details.
I was reminded of all this by this recent article about Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It gives some idea of the kind of person Brecht was without venturing too deeply into the mire. My favorite sentence: “W.H. Auden, a sometime collaborator, said that though he was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, he would be willing to make an exception in Brecht’s case.”