Paul Johnson is an erudite man, bordering on a Renaissance genius in the scope of his interests. In this book he aims to undermine our respect for the integrity of the intellect and personal morality of several leading thinkers who have influenced history. It is a series of essays on prominent individual intellectuals. His attacks on Rousseau, Shelley, Marx and Sartre are particularly substantial and effective.
One realises that many people have been fooled and mesmerised by several figures, such as these, who have successfully promoted themselves and their ideas, whilst being hypocritical and living lives deeply contradictory to their teachings. Johnston convincingly paints Rousseau as a selfish and capricious bundle of contradictions. He demonstrates how Shelley heartlessly preyed on women. He reveals how Marx was lazy, disorganised and dishonest, and abominably cruel to his family, friends and servants. He argues that Sartre had an incoherent world view and also treated women as doormats.
Johnston is brilliant at coming up with telling details that undermine the intellectuals’ supposed message. For instance, Rousseau who claimed to be able to teach the world about bringing up children callously left his own babies to the foundling hospital in Paris. Marx never earned an honest penny in his life, but lived on financial support from his factory-owning friend Engels and fathered an unacknowledged son on his enslaved servant.
Johnston is brilliant at coming up with startlingly original views on history and literature, and this is yet another. He wants to wrench our gaze away from charlatan and Rasputin-like figures who have misled the thinking of the modern world. He succeeds to a large degree in this book. His ‘History of the Twentieth Century’ had already done that for major figures such as Stalin, Lenin, Suharto and even Gandhi. He does not pull his punches.