In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.
The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.
Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.
Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.
These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.
Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.
Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unreality of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.
I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.