Dr J.’s Sampler
Gleanings from the sage of Fleet Street
Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
Photo Credit: Everett Collection
Years ago I bought a musty, hundred-year-old book at a secondhand bookstore, Selected Essays of Samuel Johnson, edited by a scholar named Stuart Reid. I remember reading the book and thinking I would write an essay on why it’s too bad Burke, rather than Johnson, is thought to be the father of modern conservatism. I yield to no man in admiring Edmund Burke, but his conservatism seemed essentially a response to a bellicose ideology rather than an expression of immovable beliefs. Johnson’s conservatism was a reflection of the man’s soul.
I never did anything with the idea, mainly because it was stupid. Conservatism is by its nature a response, and in any case Johnson was more concerned with morality than with politics; he cared about individual rather than societal reform, and so could never be the father, or even the uncle, of any variety of political conservatism.
Even so, reading through this latest collection of Johnson’s writings, I can’t help thinking there was something to my stupid idea. Johnson’s is a moral and intellectual, not a political, conservatism, but it is no less relevant for that. If there is any truth to Michael Oakeshott’s claim that conservatism is a disposition rather than a creed, that disposition was given its fullest and most memorable expression in the works of Samuel Johnson: preeminently in his essays from The Rambler, The Idler, and The Adventurer, and in his short philosophical novel, Rasselas; but also in his literary criticism and other occasional writings.
Peter Martin, who joined the crowded ranks of Johnson’s biographers last year, has given us a fair representation of these works here. It’s possible to quibble with some of his editorial choices. Why, for instance, does he include the forgettable Rambler 117, on the advantages of living in a garret, but not Rambler 180, a marvelous essay on the idle speculations of the learned? The latter half of the preface to Shakespeare could have been excluded, it seems to me, in favor of some passages from A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland or, at the very least, the whole of Vanity of Human Wishes. The editorial endnotes seem haphazard: We’re told that “momentaneous” means “lasting but a moment,” yet Martin passes over in silence Johnson’s risible observation that Milton was “untainted by any heretical peculiarity of opinion.” Still, Martin’s choices are defensible, and the Harvard Press deserves lavish praise for producing a handsome, well-made edition on which they will probably lose money.
Johnson was not, as those who’ve read only Boswell have often concluded, a reactionary. He thought of himself as a Tory, but that label did not mean for him a hidebound attitude toward all things modern. He certainly had a perverse streak (as, surely, all conservatives must have if they wish to preserve their sanity), and he enjoyed making outrageous and abusive remarks in conversation. But Johnson’s views were in chief respects more forward-looking and Whiggish than otherwise. In the essays reprinted in this volume, he inveighs against punishing debtors with prison sentences, men who take advantage of vulnerable women, the ill-treatment of children by fathers, and of Indians by the North American settlers.
He rejected the belief, common throughout the latter half of the 18th century, that the spread of commerce, or “luxury,” led inevitably to moral debasement and political instability. In The Adventurer 67, one of the essays included here, Johnson celebrates the bewildering array of human propensities on display in London. These myriad talents and interests combined, he says, to produce wealth for every willing participant.
One also learns from Johnson that the false premise of our time is the belief that man is justified, not by his behavior, but by his opinions. What one does is of little consequence so long as one holds the right views. Disdain for that assumption runs through all Johnson’s writings on manners and morality. “There are men,” he writes in Rambler 28,
Accordingly Johnson’s most acerbic criticisms are usually reserved for those “men of letters”—intellectuals is our term—who pay scrupulous attention to the morality of “society” but none to their own. “Be not too hasty,” says Imlac, the prince’s wise instructor in Rasselas, “to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: They discourse like angels, but they live like men.”
Johnson was among the most learned men in the world in his day, and he never engaged in “anti-intellectualism,” to use Richard Hofstadter’s egregious phrase. There is a lovely passage in Adventurer 137 in which “books of morality” are compared to the husbandman’s labor; let the world go without one or the other, and “the wickedness that is now frequent will become universal, the bread that is now scarce would wholly fail.” For precisely that reason he hated those “speculative reasoners”—David Hume was a frequent target, at least in conversation—who use their powers irresponsibly: “What punishment can be adequate,” he wondered in Rambler 77,
He hated philosophies that relied on theory in the absence of practice. His essays take aim at Stoicism—a doctrine which, with its promise of emotional equipoise, clearly had some appeal for Johnson, who struggled all his life with melancholy and guilt. What offended him about Stoicism and its intellectual cognates was their tendency to believe that human life could be made tidy, and that human motivations could be explained simply. “There is a kind of mercantile speculation,” Johnson says,
Johnson had little faith in human propensities for good. He struggled heroically with what he felt were his own moral shortcomings, and he had no patience with the view that men could regulate themselves by means of a “moral sense,” as the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson had originally called it. In Johnson’s rendering, the human heart is governed by pride, envy, idleness, covetousness, and vanity. His hatred of idleness—his own especially—is well known. I was surprised by how frequently he returns in these works to the sin of covetousness. “Men may be found,” he says in Adventurer 119,
Both these predispositions—his refusal to countenance any belief that oversimplified the human experience, and his dim view of man’s benevolence—made him skeptical of the claims of politics. The mental vulgarity of politics robs men of good cheer, and gives them the moral license to say things they know to be untrue. In Idler 10, Johnson discusses two of his friends. “They are both men of integrity,” he says, “where no factious interest is to be promoted; and both lovers of truth, when they are not heated with political debate.”
Politics usurps the mind, and tempts its participants to exaggerate the importance of government policies beyond all rational bounds. The hero of Rasselas recognizes this tendency in his sister. “Let us not imagine evils which we do not feel,” he says to her, “nor injure life by misrepresentations.” Rasselas goes on:
Peter Martin’s decision to include Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary was an excellent one. It is a delightful essay, partly explaining his lexicographical methodology and partly setting forth Johnson’s views on the nature of language. He struggled for nine years to produce the Dictionary; indeed he almost gave up on it more than once, and wasn’t happy with it when it appeared. None of this comes through in the preface, which alternates between self-effacing wit and peremptory authority.
Johnson’s understanding of linguistic change is, as you would expect, extraordinarily sophisticated. In 1755 he was well aware of what postmodern literary critics were congratulating themselves for knowing in the 1980s: that change in language is inevitable, and that words derive their meanings, not from themselves, but from the ways in which they are used.
Yet Johnson did not draw from this the literally inhuman conclusion that the lexicographer’s duty is merely to describe the language with no reference to propriety or correctness. He refused to include “casual and mutable” language (I notice the Oxford English Dictionary has now adopted, under “footprint,” the meaning “an environmental consequence of human activity”). “This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.”
Language is mutable, yes, but it is not for that reason impossible to misuse it, as everyone but linguists seems to understand. Johnson: “Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.”
Johnson was at his best in his Lives of the Poets, a series of biographical and critical reflections on 52 British poets, written near the end of his life and published in 1781, three years before his death. The present volume reprints most of the lives of Pope, Milton, and Abraham Cowley (this last a risky but reasonable choice), as well as excerpts from Johnson’s full-length biography of Richard Savage.
Like all great criticism, Johnson’s is valuable even when it’s wrong. In the life of Milton, for example, even his disapproval of blank verse is instructive—and, in its way, right:
Again and again, Johnson puts into words what the educated reader usually thinks, without realizing, or admitting to himself, that he thinks it. Again on Milton:
Johnson could tolerate technical imperfection in a poem far more easily than he could abide a common sentiment dressed in florid language, and his discussion of Pope’s Essay on Man remains one of the great eviscerations of English literary history. “Never was penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised,” he begins.
Johnson’s champions have wondered for years why his writings aren’t more widely known. Certainly his prose is often too abstract and Latinate. He was not a systematic thinker, and there is no One Great Work to serve as an obvious point of entry to his writing. Whatever the reasons for his neglect, there is this to be said in his favor: It is impossible to read Johnson without a heightened awareness of the seductiveness of cant.
Surely that’s all the reason we need.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.
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