by Paul Johnson
Recommended Ages: 14+
Johnson's main targets include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, and Edmund Wilson - leading idea-men (and women) who popularized ideas that are now inseparably, even if invisibly, welded to the way we think, write, and vote. In less depth, he also explores the legacies of many others, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to George Orwell, Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky. He examined not only the impact their ideas have had on our world, for good or ill, but also the foundation on which they built them, and their credibility as sages to enlighten these latter times. He exposes not only the flaws in their personal character, but their hypocrisy and the willful blindness of the generations that held them to be qualified to dictate how we should order our lives. He chronicles their lust for power, their morbid narcissism, the disorder of their personal lives, and with only a few happy exceptions, their disregard for the truth. He shows nearly all of them to be people who, while professing to love mankind, showed little or no concern for any particular specimen of it. He points up the "heartlessness of ideas," the unsystematic and even irrational basis even of ideas pitched to the public as paragons of pure reason, the impulse to recommend (if not actually commit) violence in pursuit of their ideals, and the sordid results when they placed themselves above or outside regular morality.
They were, with amazing frequency, tax dodgers, bad debtors, adulterers, neglecters of their own children, incapable of tolerating any point of view but their own. They viciously turned on friends who had done them nothing but good. They excelled at autobiographical fiction (I should even say "autohagiographical," if that were a word), made all the more plausible by seemingly frank admissions of their own faults. As marital adventurers, they undertook small-scale social-engineering experiments whose lack of success ought to give pause to anyone willing to try out their large-scale theories. As legitimate geniuses in the field where they found fame, they continually blundered into other areas where their belief in their own expertise was tragically unfounded. They left behind pages, nay chapters, nay volumes of history spattered with the blood of the victims of ideas they were unqualified to bestow on mankind, and that they sometimes sold at the price of intellectual fraud. They are people who believe the only way to fix the world is for everyone to accept their ideas with the same sort of devotion they criticize in the adherents of any other belief system (and militant atheism also seems to be a defining characteristic of their class). They are, in short, experts at blowing up the way things are; yet decades, if not centuries, of attempts to rebuild the world on the bases they propose have resulted in disaster upon disaster. Beware, indeed!
I enjoyed Johnson's presentation. It was enlightening to see where some of my society's, and even my own, unexamined ideas originated, and to challenge their right to remain unexamined. It was also, I must admit, fun to learn the low-down on the R-rated side of some of our culture's gilt-edged icons. I laughed and laughed when I read that Hemingway called his Spanish-Civil-War groupies "whores de combat." And I was intrigued by the occasional crossover between these historic figures and the author's personal experience. If we weren't talking about irrational, unfalsifiable beliefs, I would even look forward to rolling out some of Johnson's evidence (well-supported by bibliographical citations, mainly of very reliable sources). But I can already hear my debating opponent's sneer, "Oh, that stuff!" My only quibble with it is that Johnson sometimes assumes I am better educated than I am, and requires me to look up Latin and French phrases I have never read before; he also likes to use words like, to give only one example, "metier." Oh, well. He can write a book like this; I can't.
As for those of us who are ready to read "that stuff" before we dismiss it, Johnson (b. 1928) has written a lot more of it. His books include biographies of Churchill, Darwin, Elizabeth I, Edward III, Pope John Paul II, Pope John XXIII, George Washington, Napoleon, Socrates, and Christ himself ("a biography from a believer"). He has written A History of Christianity as well as histories of the Papacy, England, Ireland, ancient Egypt, the holy land, the Renaissance, and the American people; several books on art and architecture; memoirs, novels, and travel books; and a personal account of his Christian faith. But mainly he is known for his penetrating works of historical and political research, including Enemies of Society, The Recovery of Freedom, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, Heroes, and Humorists. There's also a collection of his critical columns in "The Spectator," titled To Hell with Picasso & Other Essays. I am acquainted with several of these books through the ex-boss I mentioned before. Maybe I'll prevail on him to loan me a few more.