Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have devoted themselves almost exclusively to the task of constructing self-contained thought structures designed to give meaning to existence and to offer humanity a way to transcend evil and suffering. Paul Johnson calls such thinkers "millennial intellectuals," emphasizing their conviction that their system alone can lead to a golden age, and their insistence on making all-encompassing frameworks.
Covering everyone from Rousseau, Marx, and Ibsen to Russell, Sartre, and Mailer, this is in some ways a compendium of biographies about the leading secular luminaries of the last 250 years. But it's much more than that—Intellectuals is a critique of these thinkers' philosophies, and an assessment of their ability to live according to the principles they preached. The resulting portraits are sometimes funny, often sad, and always utterly preposterous.
Take Henrik Ibsen, for instance, known by posterity as a great champion of human rights. He was even a proponent of women's rights (as illustrated most notably in his play The Doll's House), at a time and in a place when such sentiments were far from fashionable. Yet in his personal life, Ibsen was deliberately cold, rude, and unloving, and was even a chauvinist! What is most frightening is that Ibsen's case is one of the mildest in the book.
Possibly the most surprising biography is that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet. Poster-child of the hippies, he was into free love and bohemian living in the earliest part of the 19th century, keeping a sort of mobile harem always on hand, writing genuinely brilliant sonnets and other poems, and dressing well. But he was also abusive, a freeloading bum, a chronic liar, an absentee father, and generally just a terrible and unlovable guy.
What's the point of collecting all these stories? Johnson isn't just out to shock and titillate us (though there's a little of both throughout the book), he's primarily determined to demonstrate the impossibility of living out the idealistic human philosophies of these artists, philosophers, and writers. If the inventors of such systems couldn't follow them in letter or spirit, how can anyone else expect to? A cautionary tale posing as investigative history, Intellectuals is essential reading in the 21st century.