Those Nasty Secular Intellectuals, Shame on Them

Some secular intellectuals have changed the world who, for all I know, were not nice people, or so we're told by Paul Johnson in his book, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky. I read a large part of the first edition when it came out in 1998, but it's now been revised. From people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to Karl Marx, to Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemmingway, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Orwell, Johnson specializes in the dirt. From theft to divorce to womanizing to hypocrisy to opportunism to lies, he digs it all up. It's not flattering to any of them if true, and I cannot dispute his facts.

At the end of his book Johnson summarizes what is his main point:
We are now at the end of our enquiry. It is just about two-hundred years since the secular intellectuals began to replace the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind. We have looked at a number of individual cases of those who sought to counsel humanity. We have examined their moral and judgmental qualifications for this task. In particular, we have examined their attitude to truth, the way in which they seek for and evaluate evidence, their response not just to humanity in general but to human beings in particular; the way they treat their friends, colleagues, servant and above all their own families. We have touched on the social and political consequences of following their advice. (p. 342)
"What conclusions should be drawn?," Johnson asks and then answers:
Intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than witch doctors or priests of old...A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.
But he goes further than this to say we should,
Beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the lever of society, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice...Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas. (p. 342)
It's difficult to know how best to respond to this kind of massive anti-intellectualism, but that's what it is, anti-intellectualism. Don't trust the intellectuals, especially the secular ones since those are the people he highlights. Why? Because their personal lives were a mess. Does this have any force to it? He thinks so.

We must remember that these intellectuals lived their lives in the limelight for the most part. If Johnson had access to our daily lives and wrote a chapter on most of us, we wouldn't look too good either. And then a different book could be written how that we shouldn't trust the stupid people, or the non-intellectuals, or the believing intellectuals. What a surprise that would be, eh? But it's true.

There is a well-known but blurred distinction between personal ethics and public ethics. In personal ethics we should have integrity, be honest, and be courteous. But politics is war and mostly about compromise. Can you imagine a person who always told the truth in the CBS reality show "Survivor?" He or she would probably not survive. Likewise in politics. Politics is dirty business. A good politician gets his way by compromise and deceit who never gets caught.

But Johnson isn't talking merely about politics. He's talking about secular intellectuals in general. They don't know jack, he pontificates, because their personal lives were a mess. Here he's poisoning the well. Beware of secular intellectuals he warns, because they are all the same.

That's bullshit! There are in fact many secular intellectuals who have lived good decent personal lives, and by this I can think of David Hume, and Carl Sagan off the top of my head. While I'm at it there is also Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Dan Barker and too many others to name.

But the reality is that I see no significant relationship between one's personal life and the ideas he argues for much at all. The arguments should stand on their own merit. If we dismiss a person's argument because his personal life is a mess then we should dismiss a great many people's arguments for the same reason.

The fact is that these secular intellectuals changed the world and Johnson is simply bemoaning this fact. Again, they changed the world! I should be so lucky someday that it would be said of me that I helped change the religious landscape. But then, someone following in Johnson's footsteps might try to write a chapter like that on me too (Christians personally attack me in case you haven't heard). If this is to happen I hope it happens while I'm still alive so I could blast them. I'm sure most of it will be lies, half-truths and gross mischaracterizations. And yet, big deal if they do. Who cares? It will change nothing to claim my life was a mess if they do, which I emphatically deny. It still won't change the fact that I helped changed the religious landscape, if in fact I did. It still won't answer my arguments. But Christians like Johnson have always done this, so it'll be nothing new.

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