intellectuals behaving badly

Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals is a fascinating examination of the reasons we should distrust intellectuals, especially of the left-wing variety.

He looks at a selection of intellectuals from Rousseau to Noam Chomsky and sees some disturbing common patterns. They achieve a certain eminence in a particular field (Bertrand Russell in mathematics, Chomsky in linguistics, Shelley, Tolstoy and James Baldwin in literature) and then decide they are uniquely qualified to refashion civilisation. They turn to politics but their knowledge of the real world is dangerously shallow and naïve, and they are led into a complex web of deception and self-deception.

Since their understanding of the world of politics and of the behaviours and motivations of real people are fatally inadequate they succumb to the temptation to ignore real people and the real world and to put ideas before people. When people fail to react in the desired manner the intellectuals become embittered and increasingly extreme.

Believing that they have all the answers they convince themselves that they do not need to bother with troublesome distractions like facts, and that they are justified in lying in the service of the higher truths that they have glimpsed.

Lying becomes second nature to them. An almost total disregard for truthfulness can be observed in all the intellectuals under discussion. Rousseau, Marx, the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht are merely the most egregious examples.

Hypocrisy, selfishness and vicious behaviour towards other people is another common thread, most spectacular in the cases of Shelley, Hemingway and Norman Mailer but present in all to some extent. The intellectual seems to be a person unable to progress beyond adolescence, which explains not only their childish behaviours but also their willingness to embrace remarkable silly ideas (Marx and Tolstoy being classic examples)

Some (Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) are so sad and pathetic one almost feels sorry for them while others (Shelley, Lillian Hellman and Brecht) are truly repellant.

Johnson also notes the increasing tendency of intellectuals to embrace violence, most notable in the cases of Mailer and James Baldwin, and associated with that a frightening willingness to make excuses for barbarism (Lillian Hellman’s enthusiasm for Stalinism being a particularly shameful example).

There really is nothing more dangerous than an intellectual with a plan to remake the world.


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