“For intellectuals of this kind, the criterion of truth was not life: they created their own reality, or rather, sur-reality, subject to verification only with reference to opinions of which they approved. Contradictory evidence was ignored: anyone inclined to heed such evidence was ruthlessly cast out.”
“But many of those who want to change the world regard human discontent as something not to be remedied but exploited. Exploitation of resentment, not its satisfaction, has been at the centre of socialist politics since the 1840s.”
“…Ludwig von Mises thought that intellectuals gravitate to anti-capitalist philosophies ‘in order to render inaudible the inner voice that tells them that their failure is entirely their own fault.’ ”
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.
I’ve recently been reading Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals. The idea behind the book is that over the past couple of centuries a succession of intellectuals have set themselves up as being uniquely qualified to tell us how to live our lives, usurping the role once played by religious teachers, priests and prophets. Johnson argues that if these people are going to tell the rest of us how to live then we’re entitled to ask how well they managed their own lives and how successfully they put into practice the ideals they would enjoin upon others. Which seem reasonable enough – after all if a politician or a religious leader made similar claims we’d certainly feel justified in asking if they lived up to their own principles.
Which brings us back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first of the intellectual instructors in the art of living.
As Johnson points out, Rousseau was an habitual liar who exploited those around him shamelessly. He was also a paranoiac and among other hobbies he enjoyed exposing himself to women and also enjoyed masochist sexual adventures. His ingratitude and his boorish behaviour were of epic proportions. He quarreled with everyone with whom he came into contact. He was described by Diderot as “deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and full of malice.”
He also saw himself as a expert on the upbringing and education of children although he abandoned all his own children.
Apart from his stunning hypocrisy Johnson sees Rousseau as having set western civilisation on the path that would lead inexorably to the modern totalitarian state, particularly in his enthusiasm for giving the state complete control of education. He is in a way the grandfather of political correctness.
In both the chapter on Rousseau and in the other chapters dealing with other intellectuals Johnson raises some pertinent points about the motivations and psychologies of such individuals. They are essentially people trapped in a kind of permanent adolescence, with all the monstrous self-centred egotism of youth, worshipping ideas but in an embarrassingly naïve manner and entirely incapable of dealing with either the real world or real people.