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Dr J.’s Sampler

Gleanings from the sage of Fleet Street

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Samuel Johnson
Selected Writings
edited by Peter Martin
Belknap Harvard, 536 pp., $29.95

Dr J.’s Sampler

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. 

In the endless variety of tastes and circumstances that diversify mankind, nothing is so superfluous, but that some one desires it: or so common, but that some one is compelled to buy it. .  .  . When I look round upon those who are thus variously exerting their qualifications, I cannot but admire the secret concatenation of society that links together the great and the mean, the illustrious and the obscure.

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, 

who always confound the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues. .  .  . Having none to recall their attention to their lives, they rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and forget how much more easily men may show their virtue in their talk than in their actions.

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, 

to the crime of him who .  .  . tortures his fancy, and ransacks his memory, only that he may leave the world less virtuous than he found it; that he may intercept the hopes of the rising generation; and spread snares for the soul with more dexterity?

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, 

which ascribes every action to interest, and considers interest as only another name for pecuniary advantage. But the boundless variety of human affections is not to be thus easily circumscribed. Causes and effects, motives and actions, are complicated and diversified without end.

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,

who are kept from sleep by the want of a shell particularly variegated; who are wasting their lives, in stratagems to obtain a book in a language which they do not understand; who pine with envy at the flowers of another man’s parterre; who hover like vultures round the owner of a fossil, in hopes to plunder his cabinet at his death; and who would not much regret to see a street in flames, if a box of medals might be scattered in the tumult.

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: 

While courts are disturbed with intestine competitions and ambassadors are negotiating in foreign countries, the smith still plies his anvil and the husbandman drives his plough forward; the necessaries of life are required and obtained, and the successive business of the seasons continues to make its wonted revolutions.

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.  

As by the cultivation of various sciences, a language is amplified, it will be more furnished with words deflected from their original sense; the geometrician will talk of a courtier’s zenith, or the eccentric virtue of a wild hero, and the physician of sanguine expectations and phlegmatic delays. Copiousness of speech will give opportunities to capricious choice, by which some words will be preferred, and others degraded; vicissitudes of fashion will enforce the use of new, or extend the signification of known terms. The tropes of poetry will make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the current sense: pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance, and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers will at one time or other, by public infatuation, rise into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety.


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:

Of the Italian writers without rhyme, whom Milton alleges as precedents, not one is popular; what reason could urge in its defence has been confuted by the ear. But whatever be the advantages of rhyme I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is; yet like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than imitated. He that thinks himself capable of astonishing may write blank verse, but those that hope only to please must condescend to rhyme.

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: 

Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions. 

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. 

When these wonder-working sounds sink into sense, and the doctrine of the Essay, disrobed of its ornaments, is left to the powers of its naked excellence, what shall we discover? That we are, in comparison with our Creator, very weak and ignorant; that we do not uphold the chain of existence; and that we could not make one another with more skill than we are made. We may learn yet more: that the arts of human life were copied from the instinctive operations of other animals; that if the world be made for man, it may be said that man was made for geese. To these profound principles of natural knowledge are added some moral instructions equally new: that self-interest, well understood, will produce social concord; that men are mutual gainers by mutual benefits; that evil is sometimes balanced by good; that human advantages are unstable and fallacious, of uncertain duration and doubtful effect; that our true honour is not to have a great part, but to act it well; that virtue only is our own; and that happiness is always in our power.

Surely a man of no very comprehensive search may venture to say that he has heard all this before, but it was never till now recommended by such a blaze of embellishments, or such sweetness of melody. 

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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