by Paul Johnson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Trade Paperback, 385 pages
List Price: $16.99 Our Price: $11.99

Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have constructed self-contained thought structures designed to give meaning to existence and to help humanity 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 and Ibsen to Sartre and Mailer, this is a sort of 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.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Summary: Each chapter is a brief biography in which the lives of liberal thinkers are held to the standard of their own utopian philosophies.

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