Intellectuals by Paul Johnson

Prager U is a gem. If you are living under a rock and have never heard of it before, you have to head over to Prager U and sign up. I am not being paid to say this; I’m saying it because I believe it. 

Named for Dennis Prager, Prager U filled with fantastic five minute instructional videos about historical events and people, economics, government, philosophy, culture, and so on, all taught by experts in their field. My kids love them and watch them regularly.

I joined Prager U because of the five minute videos, but my favorite part of the site is a series that I just discovered yesterday called The Book Club. Once a month, Michael Knowles and another well known conservative thinker read and discuss a great book, either fiction or non-fiction. In the first episode, Knowles and Dennis Prager discuss Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. As you can imagine, theirs is a heavy discussion about one man’s experience living in the depths of despair and hopelessness of a Nazi concentration camp and surviving. I have been familiar with Frankl’s book for a long time but I had never read it. I’m reading it now.

After that premier episode there are discussions of Hamlet, the greatest play ever written, Pride and Prejudice, one of the greatest novels ever written, and The Divine Comedy, definitely the greatest (and longest) poem ever written. And, of course, no book club about great books could be complete without a discussion of the Book of Genesis.

One book in the series so far has really captured my attention because I’ve never heard of it before but I find it to be so timely: Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. It’s clear from Allen Estrin and Michael Knowles’ talk that Johnson’s book is the one you want to read if you want to truly understand the mind of the political Left today. The ideas the Left is trying to force down our throats today are very the ideas championed and written about by the secular intellectuals two hundred years ago that Johnson analyzes in his book.

In Chapter One, Johnson focuses on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you grew up believing he was a man of great virtue and truth and one of the world’s great thinkers of the enlightenment, you may be shocked to learn that Rousseau’s actions and his beliefs were in total opposition to anything resembling enlightenment. He was self-obsessed, arrogant, unwilling to accept any kind of personal responsibility, and a parasite who preyed on others’ generosity. In short, he was a conman.

Rousseau was shockingly cruel to his five children who he had with his mistress, Therese Levasseur. He abandoned all five of his babies, forcing Therese to hand them over at birth to a Paris orphanage that was unsanitary and diseased-ridden, with sky high mortality rate, without another thought. He justified his actions only after they came to light publicly by insisting he did what was best for his children, as he was protecting them from a childhood similar to his. In fact, he claimed that he wished he had had the childhood that he was providing his babies. In spite of his public declarations that he had his children’s best interests at heart, he never bothered to determine their sex, to name them, or to even record their dates of birth. Imagine the pain Therese must have felt knowing she would never be allowed to mother her own children.

The people in his life who knew him best came to the conclusion that he was a horrible human being. Denis Diderot, one of Rousseau’s closest friends, said he was “deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and full of malice.” Voltaire called him “a monster of vanity and vileness.” 

It is no surprise then that the philosophy born from such a man as Rousseau, when applied in the real world, would have similarly monstrous results. Pol Pot of Cambodia caused mass murder and human depravity in an effort to implement Rousseau’s grand plan for human existence. Mussolini’s fascist system also applied Rousseau’s belief that all citizens, from birth, are to be trained to see themselves through the lens of the State, rather than as individuals with self-determination. 

After Johnson thoroughly dissects Rousseau, he places other “intellectuals” under his microscope for examination: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, and Lillian Hellman. Every one of Johnson’s analysis is the pulling back of the curtain to reveal how each of them is nothing more than a depraved hypocrite with delusions of grandeur.  

Many of these intellectuals, whether Rousseau, Marx, Sartre, et al., have many bad character traits in common: arrogance, self-obsession, cruelty, and – literally – filthiness. Really. Many of them stunk because they refused to clean themselves. Johnson also notes that one trend that wove its way through each of them is the tendency to claim a love of humanity while treating individual humans, including their own family members, cruelly. 

Unfortunately, it has become clear that modern day Leftists seem to possess the same combination of self-obsession, arrogance, and heartlessness as their intellectual ancestors. John Kerry, Bill Gates, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are just a handful of these new pseudo intellectuals who are convinced they alone have some kind of divine knowledge, the key to understanding and organizing the world and humanity, and expect everyone to submit to their brilliance. Also like the intellectuals of Johnson’s book, they break every rule they impose on everyone else, and when they’re called on it, they refuse to take responsibility and insist that their purpose and goals are more important.  

Read Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. Those who don’t understand history are bound to repeat it. Let’s not repeat the blind following of our so-called intellectuals. 

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