Intellectuals

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.”

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5 thoughts on “Intellectuals

  1. Well, thanks for ruining Tolstoy for me! :) I haven’t read Tolstoy extensively, but I’ve enjoyed many of his short stories, such as “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” I had no idea he was considered an Enlightenment thinker… I probably learned it once and forgot it.

    I think there is a certain sense in which we should listen to people that aren’t living out their ideals, though it is different from what you are talking about, which is those that teach with a self-anointed and false authority. Rather, it is when someone comes alongside us, and attempts to urge us towards a common goal. Of course, such a person should have a very different presentation and tone to his writings.

  2. Chad,

    I think Tolstoy was an Enlightenment thinker in the most general sense—he was an intellectual, which is really a category invented by the Enlightenment, and he believed that some system could be found that would save him. Tolstoy’s saving system was unusual in that it was a systematized Christianity (his own personal form of it, anyway) with which he proceeded to make himself and everyone around him miserable.

    Much of Tolstoy’s fiction is good because it was written before his midlife crisis. In fact, the last section to Anna Karenina was added late and was based on his new thinking. I found that part almost unreadable. (To be fair, he wrote both “The Death of Ivan Illych” and “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” late in life, and those stories are top-notch.)

    I agree with you that we can be helped by someone who urges us on to a goal he hasn’t reached himself. But I want that person to also be striving for the goal, and I want to see some tangible progress made in that direction. I don’t want, say, to hear theories of biblical courtship expounded by someone whose sons and daughters are not even in their teens yet. But I’ll listen very closely to someone’s honest account of what happened when his family lived out those theories.

  3. I think some people like Tolstoy truly are trying to live out their ideals, just failing. I always feel very bad for Tolstoy and his ideals.

    What about Pascal? He is always a favorite with me because he didn’t lose his faith and remained so simple. Then again his Pensees were published by his family after his death.

  4. Cindy.

    I think some people like Tolstoy truly are trying to live out their ideals, just failing. I always feel very bad for Tolstoy and his ideals.

    I agree, and I wish that more of them would ask themselves the Dr. Phil question, namely “How’s that working for you?” I don’t thiink that God designed the path to holiness such that we would make ourselves and everyone around us miserable, and so if they are we ought to entertain the possibility that something about our approach might be broken.

    What about Pascal? He is always a favorite with me because he didn’t lose his faith and remained so simple. Then again his Pensees were published by his family after his death.

    I don’t know much about Pascal’s life, but I surely did benefit from reading the Pensees. The edition I read was Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, where he “festooned” each pensee with reflective commentary; I found that both enjoyable and helpful.

  5. I read *Intellectuals* maybe fifteen years ago (and at least once since), and it was a timely warning. I’ve seen in a lot of situations since that look good on paper but might not stand the test of reality–some of them engineered by Christians.

    Unfortunately, Johnson ruined Tolstoy for me, too. Tolstoy had been a favorite writer in college. I read Johnson’s *Art: A New History* a couple of years ago, and while I found the art parts fascinating, I thought he could’ve included fewer sordid details (a matter-of-fact hint would’ve sufficed). If he had been more discreet, I would’ve been happy to hand the book to my daughter when she reached upper high school; as it is, I can’t. I do believe he enjoys putting these gossipy bits in, so now I know to take them with a grain of salt, but I also take the warning that they are intended to convey. It’s extremely tempting for all of us to think that the rules we don’t like don’t apply to us.

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