written by Paul Johnson
published by Harper & Row, 1990, 1988
342 pages of text; 43 pages of notes and index


In particular, I want to focus on the moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they run their own lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates? Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings? Did they tell, and write, the truth?

-- Paul Johnson, from Intellectuals


Has there ever been a more blatant case of psychological projection?

In 1986 or 1987, Paul Johnson, a conservative intellectual who is a vocal defender of traditional morality, secretly began an adulterous and sexually deviant relationship with a mistress.

In 1988, Johnson released Intellectuals, a book which devotes a full chapter to each of 12 deceased intellectuals who (in Johnson's telling) belied their saintly public poses with loathsome private conduct. (Johnson also wrote a 13th chapter to lambaste in brief a selection of recent public thinkers.)

How timely! One might think that Johnson -- being an intellectual himself -- would use his own experiences to illustrate and explain what can drive prominent thinkers to betray in private the beliefs they argue for in public. Such a relevant and brave admission would have been the honest thing to do, and, after all, if intellectuals are not honest, then they are nothing.

Unfortunately, Johnson chose dishonesty. In more than 300 pages devoted to reprinting every tawdry and prurient incident he could dig up in the lives of 12 intellectuals -- in more than 300 pages of viciously one-sided attacks that might have been libelous were their targets not safely in the grave -- Johnson writes nothing about the hypocrisy of his own life.

How are we to take this book, then, but as one long attempt by Johnson to convince himself that, bad as he is, other intellectuals have been worse?

In the course of blackening Percy Shelley's reputation, Johnson writes that "he loved humanity in general but was often cruel to human beings in particular." Perhaps if Johnson had explored the similar inconsistency in his public statements about marriage and traditional values, he might have written a book worth reading. But instead what he has given us is 340 pages of self-righteous, hypocritical swill.


Review posted 14 July 1998