The story of human history shows the human race to be both self preserving and self destructive, self denying and self exalting. The Christian understands this story to reflect the working out of both the image of God in mankind and our fallen state as sinners.
In his book, Intellectuals, Paul Johnson teaches us about human nature when he teaches us about some of the worlds most influential public leaders, including Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, and Chomsky, among others. In this New York Times Bestseller from 1988, Johnson pulls back the curtain on the lives of a dozen such leaders, whom he calls, “Intellectuals.”
The first three paragraphs introduce Johnson’s intriguing project:
Over the past two hundred years the influence of intellectuals has grown steadily. Indeed, the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key factor in shaping the modern world. Seen against the long perspective of history it is in many ways a new phenomenon. It is true that in their earlier incarnations as priests, scribes and soothsayers, intellectuals have laid claim to guide society from the very beginning. But as guardians of hieratic cultures, whether primitive or sophisticated, their moral and ideological innovations were limited by the canons of external authority and by the inheritance of tradition. They were not, and could not be, free spirits, adventurers of the mind.
With the decline of clerical power in the eighteenth century, a new kind of mentor emerged to fill the vacuum and capture the ear of society. The secular intellectual might be a deist, sceptic or atheist. But he was just as ready as any pontiff or presbyter to tell mankind how to conduct its affairs. He proclaimed, from the start, a special devotion to the interests of humanity and an evangelical duty to advance them by his teaching. He brought to this self-appointed task a far more radical approach than his clerical predecessors. He felt himself bound by no corpus of revealed religion. The collective wisdom of the past, the legacy of tradition, the prescriptive codes of ancestral experience existed to be selectively followed or wholly rejected entirely as his own good sense might decide. For the first time in human history, and with growing confidence and audacity, men arise to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better.
One of the most marked characteristics of the new secular intellectuals was the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny. How far had they benefited or harmed humanity, these great systems of faith? To what extent had these popes and pastors lived up to their precepts, of purity and truthfulness, of charity and benevolence? The verdicts pronounced on both churches and clergy were harsh. Now, after two centuries during which the influence of religion has continued to decline, and secular intellectuals have played an ever growing role in shaping our attitudes and institutions, it is time to examinetheir record, both public and personal. In particular, I want to focus on the moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they run their own lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates? Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings? Did they tell, and write, the truth? And how have their own systems stood up to the test of time and praxis?
Christians can, do and will live in every kind of political context and under every kind of political leader, some are better than others. Some are safer than others. Johnson’s book helps us understand something of what makes the difference. For the Christian, we can appreciate the connection Johnson makes between the autonomy of a figure, the trouble of their ideas and the tragedy of their leadership.
Thankfully, there is a good leader out there– a second Adam has come to help his helpless race. Intellectual or not, the gospel is understandable and available to the simple minded and the smart alike. What is required is only that we repent of self autonomy and submit ourselves to the authority of Christ. Johnson’s book tells the story of what happens when those in power won’t.
Looking forward to this book.