Lifestyles of the Smart and Famous
Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson, New York: Harper & Row, 375 pages, $22.50
The French Revolution was fought with guns and the guillotine but also with ideas. Chief among the fomenters of revolutionary ideals was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although Rousseau quickly shucked off the Calvinism to which he was born, his brilliantly devised secular version of a fallen human nature sorely in need of redemption propelled the sansculotte through the streets of Paris. It continues to inspire romantic perceptions of what we are, what we can be, and how vast the distance is between the twain.
What sort of man was this Swiss visionary? According to Robespierre, "Rousseau is the one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teacher of mankind." The estimation is lavish, but no more so than Rousseau's self-characterizations: "I would leave this life with apprehension," he averred, "if I knew a better man than me." A paragon of human virtue, Rousseau was the examplar of possibilities latent in the species—or so the master and his disciples affirmed.
The reality, Paul Johnson reports, is quite otherwise. Rousseau enjoyed a limitless capacity for loving mankind in the abstract, but his relations with individual men and women were marked by a consistent streak of duplicity, cruelty, and paranoid denunciation. For 14 years he lived off of the largess of the first of many benefactresses, Madame Françoise-Louise de Warens. When his fortunes later waxed while hers waned, pleas for assistance were met with silence. David Hume afforded him refuge in England; Rousseau responded by accusing Hume of masterminding an international plot against his person. Rousseau occasionally paid extravagant tribute in print to his long-time mistress, Thérèse Levasseur, but he also publicly ridiculed her crudity and ignorance, refused to take her out, and would not allow her a place at the table when he dined at home with friends.
Nowhere did Rousseau enjoy greater influence than with his educational theorizing, yet he himself could not tolerate the intrusion of children. With Thérèse he fathered five children; each was anonymously left at the door of the Hôpital des Enfants-trouvés, where an almost certain early death awaited. When Voltaire criticized these abandonments, Rousseau protested, "How could I achieve the tranquility of mind necessary for my work, my garret filled with domestic cares and the noise of children?"
Rousseau, argues Johnson, is the prototype of the modem intellectual. The 13 chapters of Intellectuals repeat a constant refrain: intellectuals profess an endless love of humanity but exhibit little of it in their own affairs; their egoism is matched only by their publicity-seeking skill, their contempt for materialist culture by the avidity with which they pursue money. The women in their lives are freely used and then discarded, their associates prized only so long as they provide material subsistence and unquestioning deference. Although intellectuals profess primary allegiance to truth, they will lie for wealth, aggrandizement, or even the sheer joy of dissimulation. Their scorn for the political orders in which they live is manifest, yet their own utopian elixirs mix naivete with slavish fealty to actual and would-be tyrannies.
Johnson's substantiation of this indictment makes for both fascinating and depressing reading. Sexual and parental delinquency abounds among the intellectuals. Percy Bysshe Shelley cultivated a menage of women, tossing off each when her attraction palled or she expressed unwillingness to share his favors with the rest. Two committed suicide subsequent to their dismissal. Hemingway bullied four wives, and Bertrand Russell ran through an equal number. The always-competitive Norman Mailer tops them with six (to date), one of whom elected to end the relationship after he twice stabbed her with his penknife.
By way of contrast, Sartre's relationship with Simone de Beauvoir persisted until his death, perhaps because she was willing to listen, however reluctantly, to his anatomically detailed reports about new young mistresses. The German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder married twice. On wedding night to number one, the bride was locked out of the bridal suite so that the groom could share its bed with his best man. From his second wife he demanded complete faithfulness, although he openly carried on countless homosexual affairs. Following Rousseau's example, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, and Tolstoy fathered illegitimate children whom they deigned neither to acknowledge nor to assist. But legitimate children fared little better. Marx exploited his three daughters, refused them an education, and disparaged their suitors; all lived unhappy lives, with two committing suicide.
If the sexual rectitude of Johnson's intellectuals is not distinguished, neither is their honesty and integrity. Shelley, scion of a noble and wealthy family, regularly skipped town after running up large bills with local tradesmen. Russell's later years were largely given over to excoriation of a war-mongering United States. He professed not to remember that, at the end of World War II, he repeatedly beseeched the United States to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against Stalin's Soviet Union. Bertolt Brecht, in return for lavish privileges from the East German regime, served as its ever-loyal tool.
Marx championed the cause of a downtrodden proletariat. However, the only worker he knew well, the Marx family retainer "Lenchen," never received a single wage payment for her years of devoted service. By way of compensation, she was granted the opportunity to bear (but not raise) his illegitimate child. (One of the few favors that Engels refused to grant Marx was the request that he, Engels, feign paternity so that the breath of scandal would not touch Marx.) Lillian Heilman, the only woman in Johnson's parade of intellectuals, was congenitally incapable of uttering an honest word. Her "friend" Julia, eponym of the award-winning movie, was a concoction Heilman plagiarized from another woman's memoirs. Lying, thievery, infidelity, self-dealing, hyprocrisy, fraud: these are the arts at which the intellectual excels.
Paul Johnson is one of our most eminently readable and engaging historians. Intellectuals exposes enough clay feet to occupy an army of podiatrists. But to what end? Johnson tells us that he wishes to examine the "moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs." His conclusion: "Beware intellectuals."
With what, though, are we to oppose their ministrations? Johnson exhorts, "People matter more than concepts and must come first." This seemingly amiable piety is, however, worse than useless. The implied opposition between concern for people and concern for concepts is bogus. We are, for better and worse, the concept-forming, concept-using species. Whatever melioration the human condition has enjoyed during the slow march from mastodon hunting to Wall Street arbitrage derives from the ability to transform our inner and outer worlds through the power of ideas. The record is, of course, mixed. As Michael Oakeshott and F.A. Hayek have systematically demonstrated, the toll wrought by unrestrained rationalism has been dreadful. Oakeshott and Hayek are, however, intellectuals. What they realize and Johnson does not is that the only antidote for malign ideas is better ideas.
In fact, Johnson's disdain for intellectuals is expressed as much by the form of the book as its substance. His allegedly guiding idea, that intellectuals are thoroughly bad for us, receives only perfunctory attention. The vast bulk of the book is given over to a titillating inspection of the lifestyles of the smart and famous. This is entertaining, in a highbrow tabloid sort of way, but Johnson's refusal seriously to engage ideas ultimately disappoints.
Does gross disrepair within an individual's private life necessarily impugn the validity of his intellectual product? We ought at least bear in mind the Amadeus phenomenon: personal crudity coupled with outpourings that enrich and ennoble us all. Perhaps there is some sort of principle of compensation at work here; few people are able to lead lives that combine both private and public excellence. Socrates, the intellectual's intellectual, neglected his children and experienced a notoriously stormy marriage. Jesus is reported to have disparaged settled family life and to have responded rudely to requests from his mother and siblings for some of his time. Is there a moral to be drawn? Not by Johnson.
Finally, we may wonder whether his crop of intellectuals is genuinely representative of the breed. They seem deliberately chosen for their blemishes. Thus we get chapters on Rousseau but not on Hume or J.S. Mill, Victor Gallancz rather than George Orwell, Sartre instead of Camus. Johnson claims that intellectuals are characterized by an enormous gift for self-publicity, but the individuals he chooses to examine are precisely those who strove mightily to attain celebrity status. The story's twist might have been different had he examined those less lionized. Indeed, the vices he assigns to intellectuals are readily observable in celebrities from all fields. Joan Crawford was a star but not a nice mother. Howard Hughes built impressive airplanes and fortunes, but he also grew uncommonly long fingernails. No one has accused televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart of being overly cerebral, yet their sexual and financial peccadillos may rival those of Rousseau.
Two hundred years ago a young nation's leading intellectual lights spent an uncomfortably warm summer in a dusty provincial city designing a scheme of governance never before seen on this earth. They had the temerity to believe that they could give substance to their abstract conceptions of liberty, justice, and protection under the law. They admitted that their product was the work of men, not a bequest from the gods. Pace Paul Johnson, the United States Constitution has served us tolerably well. So too has the work of other intellectuals—sometimes.
Loren E. Lomasky is a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and a visiting fellow, this year, at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Lifestyles of the Smart and Famous".