By M. D. Aeschliman.
The prolific English historian and journalist Paul Johnson died two months ago and there was no dearth of substantial obituaries in the British and American media, for both of which he wrote frequently and influentially for sixty years. Distinguished English professional historians such as Jonathan Clark and John Vincent have not only praised his historical writing but suggested that professional resentment of his work came from both left-wing animus and jealousy at Johnson’s great popular success. His 1983 History of the Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s (in the USA entitled Modern Times) was chosen by the New York Times Book Review (December 4, 1983) as one of the dozen most outstanding books of the year. It is one of the greatest works of history written since World War II, with a style and perceptiveness answerable to the complexity and tragedy of the events it narrates. The Times commended its fundamental argument: the “history of modern times [is] in great part the history of how the vacuum formed by the decline of religion has been filled.”
“Nietzsche rightly perceived,” Johnson continued, “that the most likely candidate would be the ‘Will to Power’; and it is precisely the Will to Power that, since…World War I, has made this such an unsettled and bloody century.” This remains a fundamentally true insight about the world today, forty years after the first publication of Johnson’s history, which has gone through several editions and translations. It also vindicates the approach and argument of the American Catholic-convert historian Carlton J. H. Hayes of Columbia University (teacher of Jacques Barzun and also American Minister in Spain during World War II) in A Generation of Materialism, 1871-1900 (1941).
The very lengthy, substantial London Times obituary of Johnson (January 13, 2023) treated him as an intellectual Catholic who “stepped naturally into the shoes of Malcolm Muggeridge, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton,” all of them distinguished historians as well as journalists, with Belloc an outstanding Oxford-trained historian (Balliol College), as was Johnson, whose Oxford tutor (at Magdalen College) was A. J. P. Taylor. This Times obituary also noted that Johnson’s fame and authority came to be greater in the USA than in the UK. In fact, unlike many British intellectuals of both the Left and the Right, Johnson actually liked the USA and wrote well about it, including a fine History of the American People (1997). Johnson was capable of extraordinary feats of appreciation, insight, and articulation, as in his characterization of Abraham Lincoln. “There were great men in Lincoln’s day,” he wrote, and adduced Gladstone, Disraeli, Tolstoy, Dickens, Ruskin, Newman, Bismarck, and Americans such as Lee, Sherman, and Grant. But of Lincoln he wrote: “It was as though he was of a different order of humanity”; and he “seems to me to have been of a different order of moral magnitude, and indeed of intellectual heroism…. He seemed at the time, and still seems, somehow superhuman…. Lincoln was not a will-to-power man but a democrat. He sought to serve the Republic” (review of D. H. Donald’s Lincoln, London Sunday Telegraph, January 7, 1996).
It may have been through our mutual friend Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) that I got to know Paul Johnson in the 1980s, though I never saw much of him. Having read some of my writing, including my review of Tom Stoppard’s play “The Real Thing” in National Review (April 6, 1984), Johnson kindly invited me to lunch at his home west of London while I was on a visit to England. To my surprise and delight the other guest was his neighbor and friend Tom Stoppard. Stoppard himself wrote a substantial, incisive review-essay on Johnson’s book Enemies of Society that is well worth reading (“But for the middle class,” Times Literary Supplement, June 3, 1977).
Johnson and I both shared a great admiration for Muggeridge, whom Johnson called on Muggeridge’s 80th birthday a “great scribe.” He praised highly the two volumes of Muggeridge’s great autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, which an editorial in The London Times called, rightly in my view, “one of the greatest autobiographies of our time.” Johnson also praised the American Greg Wolfe’s biography of Muggeridge as factually accurate, judicious, and “an edifying tale” (“Saint Mugg on the Road to Salvation,” London Sunday Telegraph, October 2, 1995). He wrote on Muggeridge several times, including an appreciation of him in National Review, 13 years after his death and a hundred years after his birth (“St. Mugg at 100,” National Review, June 16, 2003). Muggeridge and Johnson both moved from Left to Right in their careers and were articulate defenders of Christianity during decades when it was in recession and when secular, Leftist historians and sociologists such as E. J. Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson dominated high-academic discourse in Britain. Hobsbawm was a lifelong apologist for Communism until its final fall and Williams was a dogged hater of the renegade from the Left George Orwell (a close friend of Muggeridge in the last years of his life).
But this vital intellectual history is not taught in the schools, nor do our mass media manage to give it adequate attention, with extremes of militant cultural Leftism and commercial-libertarian nihilism dominant not only in the USA but all over the West: “radical chic” oscillating with pervasive, collective amnesia, attention-deficit disorder, and “amusing ourselves to death.”
Though Johnson was a serious “cradle Catholic,” he published A History of the Jews that was praised for its fluency and humanity by that brilliant, voluble, gnostic Jewish literary critic Harold Bloom. Johnson also published an extensive, illustrated essay in praise of the accomplishments of Jewish refugees from Hitler in British life, “Hitler’s gift to Britain” (London Sunday Telegraph, January 29, 1995).
Like Muggeridge, he enormously admired Dostoyevsky’s great, prophetic, anti-revolutionary, 1872 novel The Possessed—sometimes called The Devils—seeing in it the anatomy of the rootless, fanatical revolutionary and libertine fever of the century to come, so different from the confident public faith in progress so widespread before World War I. Nietzsche foretold but also worshiped the coming “will-to-power,” whereas the Christian Dostoyevsky dreaded and deplored its advent with a kind of hallucinatory clarity that is unexcelled in the world of literary art. Johnson also praised Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy of novels as “the greatest work of fiction the Second World War produced” (London Spectator, May 17, 2003). If we add the works of Solzhenitsyn, the moral imagination and the historical sense might just save us from being overwhelmed and disoriented by “information glut” and vacuous, contemptible amusements.
It cheered the heart of left-wing haters of Johnson such as Christopher Hitchens when it was revealed that Johnson’s private life was not always what it seemed or should have been. But as the great Samuel Johnson asserted to James Boswell during their 1773 trip to the western isles of Scotland, “Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without [always] having good practice?” He even argued that “[t]here is something noble in publishing truth, though it condemns oneself.” Overall, Paul Johnson’s long life and achievement is indeed “an edifying tale.”
Tom Stoppard called Johnson “a moralist affronted by relativism,” which all of us should be. But perhaps the last word in this valediction should go to the fine British historian John Vincent (1937-2021), who himself suffered censorship from Oxford University Press for holding an unfashionable, non-Leftist point of view about the writing of modern history. Reviewing Johnson’s History of the Modern World in the London Sunday Times, Vincent wrote, “What he is very good at is presenting the conflict between the permanent moral law and the parochial superstitions of the 20th century.”
And of the 21st.
M. D. Aeschliman is retired from teaching at Boston University and the University of Italian Switzerland. His book The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism has been published in recent, updated editions in English and French, and he has edited paperback editions of novels by Charles Dickens and Malcolm Muggeridge.
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