A good summary of some of history’s most influential intellectuals, how they were influential and some of the darker sides of their personalities

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  1. A good summary of some of history’s most influential intellectuals, how they were influential and some of the darker sides of their personalities
Key Takeaways
  1. Recently, for the first time in history, intellectuals have the freedom to openly express their thoughts and beliefs without fearing for their lives. This is led to their outsized influence over the last several decades.
  2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    1.  One of the first modern intellectuals to believe that the system could be changed so intellectuals would have the freedom to think and express themselves.
    2. He believed that in order to change man’s behavior the culture and environment in which he lives would need to change as well.
    3. Rousseau came from a wealthy Swiss family and his mother died at a early age and his father was often violent. He grew up wealthy and ended up with a lot of self-pity.
    4. Was a failure in pretty much every sense until he was 39 when he wrote his Essays which became wildly popular. One of his later books was clearly anti-Catholic and almost got him arrested.
    5. Rousseau was perhaps mentally sick but at least paranoid and had dementia but his incredible skill as a writer made him one of the most influential writers in history and one of the ultimate seekers of truth and virtue and the “friend of mankind.”
    6. One of his more popular works, Confessions, was found to be riddled with lies and inconsistencies. This was common throughout his works but his skill as a writer made people forget about it.
    7. Believed that virtue was the product of good government and therefore politics must be the center of man’s life. He believed that the state should have complete control over man and his education in order to get the most out of him
    8. Widely influenced the Enlightenment as well as French Revolution
  3. Shelley
    1. Believe that intellectuals had a moral duty to help restructure society for the better. Social progress can only be made if it is guided by an ethical guidelines
    2. Published a paper in college espousing atheism which promptly got him expelled. This followed him throughout his life as publishers were reluctant to publish anything for fear of blasphemy or sedition. This lead to the poet not being recognized during his life time but his influence is widely felt today and influenced many great thinkers from Marx to Gandhi.
    3. Instability, danger and excitement were seemingly a prerequisite for this contradictory poet’s life. He lived a very promiscuous life and ended up having 7 Holstein by 3 different women and died at a young age of 29
  4. Karl Marx
    1. Has had a wider influence on thought and actual events than any other due to his thoughts and policies being implemented in two of the worlds largest countries – Russia and China. Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung were all faithful Marxists and deep believers in his line of thought
    2. Marx was heavily influenced by the Talmud
    3. Marx was a great journalist and a compelling writer but many of his famous phrases, such as “religion is the opium of the masses”, was taken from others
    4. Determined that social ills stemmed from the ruling or bourgeois class and that he working class needed to cast off their chains and regain the world. In this new world, the intellectuals would form the elite and the proletariat the foot soldiers
    5. Marx so praised science but his approach to Marxism was wholly unscientific
  5. Ibsen
    1. Ibsen managed to reshape theater from a country, Norway, that had little to no cultural background. He is widely considered to be the most important playwright since Shakespeare and considered the father of realism
    2. Ibsen was close to an alcoholic, very  vain, destitute before becoming a famous playwright, estranged from his family
    3. Ibsen was a loner and had trouble with relationships. He believed that friends were a luxury and if that you wanted to dedicate yourself completely to some pursuit most friendships would likely not last
    4. He was totally against democracy because he believed that most people are not fit to have an opinion.
    5. One of his plays “A Doll house” helped launch the feminism movement as it showed marriage not as sacrosanct and also that a husbands power could be questioned
  6. Tolstoy
    1. The most ambitious of the intellectuals described in that he thought he could enact a moral revolution and bright the Kingdom of Christ to life. Felt divinely possessed and his nonviolent beliefs influenced Gandhi and MLK. However it is hard to consider whole story a Christian as he simply took the parts from the Bible that he agreed with and dispensed with the rest
    2. May be the greatest novelist of all time. He was better able to describe mans nature than anybody else
    3. Born into a high class family but wasn’t very rich. This made him feel apart and above the majority
    4. Tolstoy had issues with women and gambling and while he was very distraught over certain sins, others he was able to ignore completely
  7. Emerson
    1. Emerson is the quintessential American intellectual. He became a national hero and the embodiment of thinking although much of his work was convoluted and difficult to understand. Essayist, lecturer and poet
    2. Lead the transcendentalist and individualist movements. Believed all things connected to God and therefore all is divine. Truth could be experienced directly from nature
  8. Hemingway
    1. Was the archetypal American of the time and one of the greatest authors. He was a perfectionist in his prose and read voraciously. He painstakingly developed his unique style which revolutionized prose. Truth, honor and loyalty in his writing was his core goal, lack of adjectives and just quality. However, his promiscuous and lie-filled life shows he had different standards for himself
    2. Despite his parent’s deep religion and pressure, Hemingway was an atheist
    3. Hemingway was a man of action who loved war, hunting and big game fishing. He served as a war time journalist and later supported many communist regimes.
    4. Hemingway was a chronic alcoholic and often injured himself due to drunkenness. The quality of his work of course suffered and he could not live with this so he killed himself
  9. Bertolt Brecht
    1. Became the most influential theater producer in the world. He used women and totally ignored his family. The author notes that he seems to be the only intellectual who does not have a single redeeming feature
  10. Bertrand Russell
    1. One of the more influential philosophers, writers, logicians, mathematicians and more of the 20th century and wrote about every imaginable topic. Considered the Socrates of the 1900s
    2. His mathematical background lead him to believe that anything could be solved with pure reason – analytic philosophy
    3. Anti war activist and railed against nazism and Stalin as well as us occupation of Vietnam
    4. He was a womanizer and failed as a father but had a tremendous influence on every field from artificial  intelligence and computer science to epistemology and metaphysics
  11. Sartre
    1. Like Russell, a philosopher, writer and playwright who aimed to reach the masses
    2. He was very egotistical And spoiled as a child
    3. He believed that mans actions, his deeds, not his words, determined his life. Paradoxically, much like the other intellectuals, he could not live his life according to his beliefs. He wrote a lot about anti-Nazism but took little action
    4. He preached freedom and existentialism at a time when the public were hungry for it. Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come
    5. Bad faith – spiritually destructive conformity
    6. Hell is other people
    7. Open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir
  12. Edmund Wilson
    1. American writer who inherited a love for truth from his father and known for shrewd and objective writing. Explored Freudian and Marxian themes
  13. Victor Gollancz
    1. British publisher and humanitarian who advocated for helping Germany post WWII when that idea was quite unpopular. He was against everything “anti” and “pro” as he was for all humanity
    2. He was very liberal with the truth and would only publish what he agreed with. He often eliminated entire passages because they disagreed with him. He wanted to publish slanted books without them appearing to be slanted
    3. Very degrading to women like many of the other intellectuals described
  14. Lilly Hellman
    1. American dramatist and playwright who had several successful Broadway plays. She was politically active and later became known as a staunch Stalinist which hurt her reputation
  15. George Orwell
  16. Connelly
  17. Norman Mailer
    1. Like many of the intellectuals, spoiled as a child and had an overburdening mother. He ended up very vain and violent
  18. Tynan
  19. Baldwin
  20. Chomsky
    1. Linguist who came up with the theory that humans have inmate structures of mind and therefore social engineering is immoral
    2. Like many other actuals discussed Chomsky made the intellectual leap of thinking that because he was an expert in one area he had the knowledge and the right to speak in public affairs and about morality
  21. One of the takeaways from this book is that you should beware and be skeptical of intellectuals opinions on areas they are not expert in. Also always remember that people are more important than ideas
What I got out of it
  1. Many of these people had tremendous impact on the world and even if you see their impact as positive, many had extreme flaws which hurt themselves, their spouses and family and in Marx’s case millions of people. Everyone is human and has their flaws

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