Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Paul Johnson is a prolific British writer who has produced histories of the Jews, Christianity, the modern world, and the English people. He is, I believe, a Catholic (if so, it commendably did not discourage him, in his substantial and very readable history of Christianity, from admitting that the religion, to all intents and purposes, was founded by Saint Paul). Between 1955 and 1970 he worked on the left-wing journal The New Statesman, and for six years was its editor, with more success than anyone has achieved since. He is now firmly entrenched on the right, and is a fierce critic of left intellectuals.

The background to his new book is the rise and influence of secular intellectuals as moral and political guides, a development which he interprets as an unsuccessful replacement for clerical authority. This general theme is only the background to the book—indeed, it might be called the excuse for it—and not its subject, since Johnson does not discuss the role of the intellectual in general terms, nor does he consider the difference between secular and religious intellectuals or ask whether they have a more significant part in some societies than in others. In fact, he does not pretend that the book is anything more than it is, a series of unflattering short biographies of people identified as secular intellectuals. They are an odd assortment, ranging from Rousseau and Shelley to Kenneth Tynan and Lillian Hellman, by way of Marx, Tolstoy, and Hemingway, among others. He describes them all so as to bring out their bad behavior. According to Johnson, they all—this seems to be their defining characteristic—“preferred ideas to people.” Ruthless or exploitative personal relations are particularly emphasized: the well-known histories of Rousseau’s treatment of his children, for instance, and Tolstoy’s relations to his wife are rehearsed.

The chosen intellectuals are also represented as characteristically, if not universally, very unscrupulous about the truth, though this charge takes different forms, not always very carefully distinguished. Sometimes, as in the case of Russell and Sartre, it means that they made reckless and irresponsible political statements. With others, particularly Marx, it means that they would not admit it when proved wrong. With many, it means that they lied to their wives or their creditors. In the case of the left-wing British publisher Victor Gollancz, who is particularly picked on for sins against veracity, it paradoxically means, in several instances, that he stated with extreme frankness to authors that he would not publish material with which he did not agree.

One or two intellectuals are rather heartlessly mocked for practical incompetence: the aged Sartre became confused at a meeting; Bertrand Russell was unable to bring a kettle to the boil or adjust his hearing aid. A long paragraph devoted to the accidents in which Ernest Hemingway was involved makes a blackly comical catalog, but hardly a surprising one, granted the feats he was always attempting and the fact, firmly emphasized by Johnson, that much of the time he was drunk.

Above all, the writers in Intellectuals are shown as sexually unscrupulous and in many cases insatiable—and in almost every chapter (Ibsen is resistant to the treatment) there is a detailed rehearsal of the subject’s adulteries, infidelities, and general sexual disorder. All the subjects but one are men; in the case of the exception, Lillian Hellman, Johnson is not content with the material he has about her sexual adventures and throws in a good deal more about those of Dashiell Hammett. The censorious and distinctly prurient tone of all this suggests that the Church’s revenge on the secular intellectual has been shaped by the more dubious aspects of the confessional.

Much, then, is said about the less intellectual activities of the intellectuals. Not much is said about their ideas. The account of Marx is a standard caricature; the remarks about Rousseau’s political theories would not pass a first-year exam. The little that is said about the technical work of Russell, Sartre, and Chomsky would have been better left out. The creative writers Johnson discusses he in fact admires, but he has nothing interesting to say about them. All the unlovely chatter about writers leaves in the end some sense of respect for only two of them: Ibsen and—interestingly—Brecht, who is represented as so unrelievedly and chillingly horrible that even an author who is prepared to patronize Marx and sneer at Tolstoy seems rather awed by him.

So the whole enterprise is quite useless. But it does raise two questions, at least. One is why an intelligent and hardworking writer with a sense of the past should have thought it worth doing. I have no idea. The other is the question of whether there was a subject to be written about, if Johnson had chosen to pursue it seriously. Is there anything interesting to be said about “intellectuals” as such? Who are they? What authority, if any, do their pronouncements have? It is these questions, particularly the last, that Johnson’s book might have addressed, and perhaps was originally intended to address.


If there is a question worth addressing, certainly one would have to start with a less eccentric selection of intellectuals. One elementary improvement would be that they should not be selected just for being badly behaved. Johnson himself, as a matter of fact, undermines any general lesson to be drawn from his selection by several times mentioning other people who were nicer than his subjects, were exploited by them or at least were there to pick up the pieces, and yet had as good a claim to be secular intellectuals as the subjects had. In the tale of Tolstoy, there is Turgenev. Near Sartre at one time, there is Camus—though Johnson says he is not an intellectual, on the simplistic ground that he did not hold ideas to be more important than people. Above all, as friend and victim of the wretched Rousseau, there is Diderot. Diderot was an extremely sympathetic human being who was interested in a vast range of ideas and experience and as an organizer, an editor, and a writer of the great Encyclopedia did as much as any other single person, perhaps more, to form modern consciousness. If Diderot was not a secular intellectual, then there is no such person.

Johnson’s principles of selection are partly formed by the notion, explicitly applied to Camus, that exploitation of other people is a defining mark of an intellectual, or at least of a secular one. This is an uninteresting conception and begs all the questions. But in addition to this, and indeed contrary to it, Johnson may have another idea. It may be that he is not claiming to produce a generalization about all secular intellectuals (the language of typically,” “characteristically,” and so forth makes it hard to tell), but is rather saying that these examples serve in themselves as a demonstration of the truth he wants to bring home: that possession of the sorts of characteristics by which intellectuals are distinguished—an interest in ideas, perhaps, and a disposition to see the world, particularly the world of politics, in abstract and general terms—carries no guarantee at all of moral reliability or good judgment. So why should the intellectuals have any authority? Why should anyone take any notice of them?

If this is Johnson’s question, as I think it is, his principles of selection still are inadequate. For one thing, there are still questions to be answered about non-secular intellectuals. Why should anyone have listened to them, either—to T.S. Eliot, for instance, or to Claudel? He says nothing at all about this, but it is possible to imagine what his answer might be. From two very brief passages about the replacement of clerical authority by that of the secular intellectual, one might infer the opinion that if Christian intellectuals (in particular) are to be listened to, it is because they are Christian, not just because they are intellectuals. Or, rather differently: it may be they should be listened to because they are intellectuals, and their abstract and general formulations are what attract intellectual interest, but any authority they have is the authority of their Christian beliefs and derived from their religious tradition, and does not simply come from their status as intellectuals. With secular intellectuals, on the other hand, there is nothing to commend their views to people’s attention beyond the fact that they are intellectuals.

This is some sort of an answer, but a very incomplete one. Many secular intellectuals do attach themselves to a tradition, as many among those reviewed in Intellectuals have attached themselves to Marxist traditions. Johnson thinks those traditions false and pernicious, and indeed sometimes proceeds in a peremptorily right-wing way (he counts the judgments of Commentary magazine as authoritative without further argument, and a statement about Sartre by the extreme right paper L’Aurore is unquestioningly accepted, although it is at the same time described as a sneer). But that should not be the point. Even if Johnson does not like the tradition in question, it will still be true that the authority that is claimed for these intellectuals’ judgments does not derive from a pure act of personality, but is attached to traditions of discourse that stand behind the thoughts of particular people, as the works of Hegel, Saint-Simon, Ricardo, and Feuerbach, to name only a few, stand behind the ideas of Marx.

Equally, it would be a great mistake to suppose that the authority of Christian intellectuals is just the authority of the Church. Their role as such intellectuals is not that of a priest; moreover they have in fact often been heretics. Nor are their characteristics as intellectuals at all simply related to their Christian belief, or to the Church, and there is much to be said about the questions of how much help or harm may be done to the Christian life by its expression in abstract terms and in connection with a wider range of ideas. “What is the authority of an intellectual?” is as good a question about a Christian intellectual as about a secular one, and has been recognized to be so by Christians: by Newman, for instance, to take one notable example about whom Johnson certainly knows a good deal.


There is another, quite different, respect in which Johnson’s list of examples needs to be reconsidered if the right question is to be isolated. It is necessary to separate from the supposed authority of the intellectual something else, the authority of the artist. By including Shelley, Tolstoy, and others who were creative writers Johnson confuses the issue in several ways. One is that the self-centeredness, the exploitation of others, what he calls the “monumental egotism” of these people, tells us nothing special about intellectuals. It simply reflects the wellknown fact that some creative people make ruthless demands on those around them. It is another, and in fact totally useless, question whether those people’s achievements “excuse” their behavior. Their neglected children, abused wives, abandoned mistresses, unpaid creditors, and other victims-needed an answer to that question, perhaps, and they can hardly be blamed if their answer was negative. But we scarcely need an answer to it. Moreover, this entire theme has very little to do with the authority of intellectuals. The authority of these artists lies in their works, not in the characteristics typical of intellectuals.

Johnson strangely neglects this point. He admires most of the artists he discusses—in the case of Shelley, perhaps too indiscriminately. (Is it because he does not admire his work that he did not take up Wagner, an artist who, one would think, was from all points of view ideally suited to his style of treatment?) But he does not try to understand, or relate to his theme, the hardly unfamiliar fact that work displaying great insight can go with a heartless life and ridiculous pronouncements. In one case he runs into critical trouble, since he both regards Tolstoy as “perhaps the greatest of all novelists” and yet claims to find in the novels what he finds in Tolstoy’s life, an inability to sympathize with other human beings.

It is true that the respect awarded to artists because of their works may get extended, in the case of some of them, into a regard for, or at least an interest in, their pronouncements on political and other subjects. This may not be entirely rational, any more than it is when the same thing happens with scientists or entertainers. But it is hardly surprising: such people may well be remarkable, singular, interesting, with a talent for powerfully expressing feelings. In any case, this is not an issue of the authority of the intellectual. The intellectual, in Johnson’s sense of a distinguished or well-known person, is someone who has a disposition and capacity to discuss and think in an informed way about ideas, and is thought to have some authority to speak about questions of immediate public concern, particularly about politics, in virtue of that capacity.

In some cases, the distinction between the authority of the intellectual and that of the artist is of course blurred. This is particularly so with the theater and with film, and there has been the tiresome phenomenon, for instance, of writers such as John Osborne or Arnold Wesker, whose awkward plays were thought better than they were because they expressed political ideas, which in their turn were better regarded than they should have been because they were expressed on the stage. But in the end, the authority of the intellectual, if there is such a thing, should be a purely intellectual authority. It is more than an expertise or scholarship, because it is applied outside the sphere of experts and scholars. It is the authority of a person to speak about the particular issues, above all political issues, derived from that person’s capacity to handle ideas. Can there be such a thing?

The first requirement is that ideas should have something to do with politics. It is of course possible to pretend that they do not, and the present British government is a sustained exercise in pretending they do not. Its well-known anti-intellectual position of course includes its being against intellectuals, but that is only a small part of what it includes, since there are not many intellectuals to be against; intellectuals, as opposed to men of letters or academics, have never been a very common phenomenon in Britain. Moreover, a good number of those that there are find themselves somewhere on the left, and the government has good reason to be against them anyway.

But it is not much more encouraging to right-wing intellectuals. An example is to be found in a recent article in the London Times by Roger Scruton, certainly a right-wing intellectual, written to mark Isaiah Berlin’s eightieth birthday and mostly devoted to an attack on him. The attack itself has no substance—it merely applies to one of the least appropriate targets conceivable the old line about liberals committed to free speech being soft on communism—but it does offer a glimpse of Scruton’s own location on the right, when he says that he senses in Berlin “a dearth of those experiences in which the suspicion of the liberal idea is rooted: experiences of the sacred and the erotic, of mourning and holy dread.” What this might have to do with any politics now accessible to anyone is a question for Scruton, but, as he is well aware, it certainly has nothing at all to do with the politics of Mrs. Thatcher.

In one way, that is undeniably reassuring. On the other hand, the fact that Scruton’s rhetoric, vapid as it is, has no conceivable relation to current political speech is an illustration of something more general and less welcome, that current speech has no room for any exercise of the imagination. In fact, although they are anti-intellectual, Thatcherian politics are deeply involved in ideas. They are, with their fixation on the competitive market and contempt for public assistance to the noncompetitive, more intensely ideological, as has often been noticed, than is usual in Britain. It is not that they have no ideas, but that they lack imagination, and those who develop the ideas are public accountants, publicists, and blinkered theorists of the market, rather than anyone who reflects more imaginatively on anything else. Certainly they are not intellectuals.

It is the intellectual imagination that gives intellectuals whatever authority they have. Of course it is true that the particular judgments of intellectuals may be impractical or poorly related to a given situation. But they are not meant to govern: that is the business of government, and to say that no one should comment on government except those in government is to say that there should be no comment. Of course, some intellectuals may be vain, self-important, and mendacious: that merely suggests that there should be more intellectuals who do not have such characteristics. Of course, the interest attached to the pronouncements of intellectuals may, in some cultures, be exaggerated. It is hard to deny that that used to be true in France, or at least in Paris; it is remarkable what intense scrutiny used to be applied to every shift of position, every analysis and rationalization, of certain Parisian thinkers who had never demonstrably shown good sense about anything.

But even such distortions raise questions that need answers. At the end of his chapter on Sartre, Johnson reports, in a bewildered tone, his funeral:

Over 50,000 people, most of them young, followed his body into Montparnasse Cemetery. To get a better view, some climbed into the trees…. To what cause had they come to do honour? What faith, what luminous truth about humanity, were they asserting by their mass presence? We may well ask.

If we may well ask, we should do well to answer. We need not suppose that the reputation of Sartre was entirely well-founded to acknowledge the truths to which it spoke: that politics necessarily involves ideas, and particularly so when it denies this; that political ideas need the surroundings, the criticism, and the life provided by other ideas; and that some people are able to bring those ideas imaginatively into the thoughts of those who are going to live under that politics. There is such a thing as the authority of the intellectual, and it is to be found in that capacity—an authority which, like that of the artist and unlike that of the clergy, depends on the uncommanded response of those it affects.

This Issue

July 20, 1989