Left and Right

‘The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas’

Paul Johnson’s ‘Intellectuals’ chronicled some of history’s greatest monsters

The great journalist, author and historian Paul Johnson has died, aged 94. Editor of the New Statesman in the late 1960s, Johnson was one of the most famous examples of British journalists who moved from Left to Right, part of a club that includes Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips among its number, and in later life he wrote a brilliant column for the Spectator.

But Johnson is best known to many for his history books, one of the most entertaining being Intellectuals. Published in 1989 and structured as a series of – very critical – biographies of great philosophers, poets, playwrights and novelists, Johnson’s book got to the essence of the intellectual mindset in all its worst aspects: their intense selfishness and narcissism, their callousness towards friends and lovers, and their fondness for giving moral support to some of the worst ideas and regimes in history.

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One of the most prominent Catholics in British journalism, Johnson saw secular intellectuals as modern successors to the theologians of the medieval Church, the difference being that, without the restraints of religious institutions, their egotism was uncontrolled.

Writers and artists are often incredibly selfish people, and this is true across the political spectrum, but of course it’s far more satisfying to read about those men who claimed to be the saviour of the poor and humble yet were so relentlessly horrible to actual people around them. That’s what makes the book – published just as the system imagined by one of its subjects came crashing down in eastern Europe – so satisfying.

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It begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ‘first of the modern intellectuals’ and perhaps the subject of Johnson’s most intense vitriol.

‘Older men like Voltaire had started the work of demolishing the altars and enthroning reason,’ he wrote: ‘But Rousseau was the first to combine all the salient characteristics of the modern Promethean: the assertion of his right to reject the existing order in its entirety; confidence in his capacity to refashion it from the bottom in accordance with principles of his own devising belief that this could be achieved by the political process; and, not least, recognition of the huge part instinct, intuition and impulse play in human conduct.

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